The full import of an ‘informal summit’ is something that few outside hallowed diplomatic circles fully comprehend. Unlike a regular meeting of two heads of government that usually produces a formal statement and a series of agreements, much of the work in an informal summit rests in the realm of the intangible; results are apparent over a period of time. Most people find it difficult to assess the ‘success’ of a high-level meeting.
Understandably, the October 11-12 informal summit at Mamallapuram between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping —involving a six-hour one-on-one meeting, subsequently followed by delegation-level talks—left many unsure about its outcome.
Ashok Kantha, director of Delhi’s Institute of Chinese Studies, tries to put some clarity into it. “The signal was clear from the two leaders that they wanted to bring back stability and momentum into relations,” he says, pointing out that in recent months the pace in Sino-Indian ties had slowed down significantly.
Indeed, branded as the “Chennai Connect,” last week’s informal summit was a much-needed diplomatic exercise to bolster the flagging “Wuhan Spirit”of 2018. Fresh strains had started creeping into ties in the wake of India’s abrogation of Article 370, particularly the decision to turn Ladakh into a Union Territory.
All attempts by India to assure China, including a visit by foreign minister S. Jaishankar, to explain that the decision was purely “internal” and had no implications for its external boundary, failed to convince the leadership in Beijing. Together with Pakistan—a country that has been trying to raise Cain over the changes regarding Kashmir—China decided to move a joint resolution at the UN Security Council for a discussion. The move met with partial success—it was discussed behind a closed-door meeting, but was not serious enough to merit a mention through a resolution by the UNSC’s 15 members. But, given that it happened under the fierce glare of international spotlight, it was enough to strain Sino-Indian relations.
“The attempt of the two leaders was to stress the convergence and give out a positive signal rather than highlight their differences,” says Kantha, a former Indian ambassador to China.
Agrees Gautam Bambawale, another retired envoy to Bejiing. According to him, the fact that the two leaders continue to converse about their “national visions, goals and objectives” and the manner in which they want to achieve them is significant. “This is a continuation of the Wuhan Spirit and gives us a better idea of the ‘strategic vision’ and how they want to get there,” he adds. Bambawale, a member of the team that made the Wuhan summit possible, says that it is important that top leaders spend time talking to each other without distraction so that they develop better understanding and trust.
The informal summitry mechanism is perhaps a contribution of India and China to the art of diplomacy. In recent years, the Chinese have had informal summits with US presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. But they were “one-off” meetings, with no attempt to make it a regularity. In contrast, the Chennai Summit followed the one in Wuhan. Xi and Modi have also committed to a third edition, with Modi accepting Xi’s invitation for the next round in China. The Chinese president also indicated that he would like this practice to continue even among future leaders of the two countries for fostering mutual understanding.
“Such informal summits are a force multiplier as there is a definite trickle-down effect at different levels of the political structure of the two countries,” argues Kantha. Behind, the glad optics, though, lies a strata of real gains.
One area marked for improvement is the huge trade gap in favour of China— often an issue of concern for an India pushing for deeper economic partnership with Beijing. A high-level economic and trade dialogue mechanism at the finance ministers level has been agreed upon to bridge the chasm. Much of this could be done by giving greater access to Indian products, particularly in the pharmaceutical sector, by allowing Indian drugs access to the Chinese market. There is a demand for cheaper Indian drugs in China and after the finance ministers’ meeting—likely to happen by end 2019—this could well be implementable. The other significant trust-building act was to include goods and services in the trade sector along with investments from China for a more balanced outcome. This could also soothe nerves in the Indian domestic market jangled by the perceived predatory nature of Chinese trade practices.
As a corollary to this, easing of visas for each others’ businessmen, cooperation in the tourism sector and welcoming more Chinese students in India could all fall within the realm of boosting people-to-people contact. But, to achieve this, both countries want to ensure peace along the borders; for this, the stalled “senior representative” level dialogue on the boundary issue is likely to be revived soon between Ajit Doval and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.
The stage is also being set for military-to-military level cooperation, with high-level exchanges in the run-up to a possible visit by Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh to China in the coming days.
“So what happens after the sugar-rush ends?” asks Kantha, indicating that despite the bonhomie which is likely to follow the “Chennai Connect”, the area of differences and concerns will still remain. He makes it clear that the political leadership of both India and China will have to show enough maturity to ensure that while their differences do not turn into disputes, they cannot be brushed under the carpet. “The differences have to be addressed not only to contain, but to resolve,” says Kantha.
Bambawale also admits that despite the high of Mamallapuram, none of the contentious issues in bilateral relations have vanished. Be it the issue of Pakistan in Sino-Indian relations or China’s pro-active role in the Indian sub-continent through its massive infrastructure development projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) or the shadow of the growing Indo-US ties—these contentious issues remain. In due time, they will regain their primacy on the talks-table.
The simultaneous rise of India and China within the same geographical space has never been an easy development. They throw up several issues, including their unresolved boundary—unless handled with care, it could spark a serious confrontation between the two most populous countries in the world. On the other hand, there are many areas of cooperation and with more trust and confidence in each other they can only expand in future.
From next year, the two countries will embark on a year-long celebration of the 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. Hopefully, the enhanced exchanges between people will strengthen the pathway for an enduring partnership. For mutual, and maximum, benefit, the dragon and the elephant have to be in the same team.