Summit’s yawning deficit

While a recent meeting between India and China’s leaders exuded cordiality, it bypassed a crucial issue and exposed the two countries’ glaring disparities. Sudha Ramachandran reports

On October 11 and 12 Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping held their second ‘informal summit’ at Mamallapuram near Chennai in southern India. The two leaders spent around six hours together in one-on-one meetings, after which their delegations had discussions. Xi described his ‘heart-to-heart’ discussions with Modi as ‘candid’, like those with a ‘friend’, while Modi said that the ‘Chennai connect’ would mark the start of a ‘new era of co-operation’ between the two countries

So what did the summit achieve? The most concrete outcome was the decision to set up a High-Level Economic and Trade Dialogue mechanism, which will be headed by India’s Minister for Finance Nirmala Sitaraman and China’s Vice Premier Hu Chunhua. The objective of this mechanism is to explore ways to expand trade and commercial relations and build a Sino-Indian ‘manufacturing partnership’, which India hopes will help it bridge the $53-billion trade deficit between the two countries.

In addition, the two sides discussed terrorism and radicalisation, pledging to work together to counter these problems. People-to-people ties received a boost; India announced a five-year, multiple-entry e-visa for Chinese tourists. The two leaders declared Tamil Nadu and Fujian Province as sister-states, and the possibility of maritime connectivity between them will also be explored.

Xi and Modi have sent out a ‘clear’ message that they ‘want to bring back stability and momentum into relations’, Ashok Kantha, director of Delhi’s Institute of Chinese Studies and a former Indian ambassador to Beijing, told Outlook magazine. Describing the Mamallapuram summit as ‘a force multiplier’, Kantha observed that Xi and Modi’s commitment to improving ties is having a ‘definite trickle-down effect at different levels of the political structure of the two countries’.

However, others have dismissed the summit as rich in rhetoric but poor in productivity –more style than substance.

The recent Xi-Modi meeting will be remembered ‘for what was not said rather than for what was said and agreed upon’ by the two leaders, Srikanth Kondapalli, Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, wrote in Deccan Herald.

Indeed, the Kashmir issue, which frayed Sino-Indian relations in the run-up to the Mamallapuram summit, did not figure at all in the discussions.

On August 5, the Modi government announced its decision to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and to divide the state into two union territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh – that would be governed directly by Delhi.  Home Minister Amit Shahwent on to elaborate that Ladakh includes Aksai Chin.

The Xi-Modi meeting will be remembered ‘for what was not said rather than for what was said’

An icy plateau in the northeastern part of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, Aksai Chin is disputed territory. Both India and China lay claim to it but it has been under Chinese control for decades.

India’s decision on Kashmir evoked a strong reaction from both Beijing and Islamabad. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said India’s ‘unilateral’ move was ‘unacceptable’ as it ‘continued to damage China’s territorial sovereignty’. Although India’s Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar told the Chinese during his visit to Beijing in mid-August that India’s decision would have no implication for either the external boundaries of India or the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto boundary between the two countries, this did not help smooth Beijing’s ruffled feathers.

Since India’s August 5 announcement,China and Pakistan have been discussing and coordinating their responses. The two ‘all-weather friends’ took the matter to the United Nations Security Council, where it was discussed behind closed doors. Several high-level visits of ministers and military officials followed, including oneto Beijing by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa on the eve of the Xi-Modi summit.

Tit-for-tat moves by Beijing and Delhi further roiled bilateral relations. A scheduled meeting in Delhi between the Special Representatives of the two countries on the border question was cancelled, as was a visit to Beijing bythe Indian Army’s Northern Commander Ranbir Singh.

India carried out military exercises near the LAC in Ladakh as well as in Arunachal Pradesh, where China claims around 90,000 sq. km of territory. There were doubts whether the Xi-Modi meeting would happen. China kept India on tenterhooks and confirmed Xi’s visit less than two days before the event.

At a media briefing at the end of the summit, India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said that ‘the Kashmir issue was not raised nor discussed’.Thus, Modi and Xi sidestepped a tricky issue.

‘Our position [on Kashmir],’Gokhale said, ‘is anyway very clear that this is an internal matter.’ New Delhi’s relations with Kashmir are indeed an internal matter. However, China is in illegal occupation of around 15 per cent of the territory of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, much of it in Ladakh. Besides, it controls another 5,180 sq. km of territory adjoining POK that Pakistan ceded to China under a 1963 border settlement agreement.

India would do well to lower its expectations of the new economic and trade mechanism

In an article in Business World, defence analyst Ajai Shukla points out that ‘if [as the Indian government often argues] the only J&K [Jammu and Kashmir] issue that remains to be discussed with Pakistan is the return of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to India, it is hard to justify remaining silent about the return of China Occupied Ladakh’.

DISPUTED TERRITORY: Aksai Chin
DISPUTED TERRITORY: Aksai Chin

At Mamallapuram, the two sides swept Kashmir, a nettlesome issue that could have derailed an otherwise smooth summit, under the carpet. Even those issues that saw forward movement may not be as productive as is being claimed, as India’s past experience with mechanisms established to reduce differences and resolve disputes with China has not been too positive.

Consider this: Although India and China signed the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Co-ordination on India-China border affairs in January 2013 and the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement in October 2013, these have not prevented an escalation of tensions along the LAC. There have been several serious military standoffs between the two sides such as the face-off at Depsang in Ladakh in April 2013 and the 2017 crisis at Doklam, as Shukla highlights.

Therefore India would do well to lower its expectations of the new economic and trade mechanism.

As for China and India’s ‘shared concerns’ over terrorism and radicalism, how ‘shared’ can these be when they differ on their definition of terrorism and its main source in the region? Although India is deeply concerned over the Pakistani state’s support for anti-India terrorist groups, China is reluctant to join global efforts to censure Pakistan for allowing terrorism to thrive on its soil.

This was underscored yet again at the recent meeting of the Financial Action Task Force, an anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism financing watchdog. Pakistan was found to have implemented just five of the 27 measures that it was expected to take to shut off terror financing. Its poor performance should have resulted in it being blacklisted. However, China, which currently heads the FATF, along with Malaysia and Turkey, voted against Pakistan’s blacklisting and thus got it off the hook.

That FATF meeting laid bare China’s insensitivity to Indian concerns.

Informal summits have their usefulness, to a degree. They serve as icebreakers and provide an opportunity for leaders to engage in free-wheeling conversations without the presence of officials. They can chat sans pressure to deliver on agreements or joint statements. Importantly, such summits, like those at Wuhan and Mamallapuram, send out the message to their domestic audiences that Xi and Modi are successfully managing the Sino-Indian relationship and that all is well between the two neighbours

But do we actually need informal summits? In today’s world, leaders have several opportunities to hold one-on-one meetings on the sidelines of summits like those of the G-7 or BRICS. They do not need a separate ‘informal summit’, especially since these are not particularly productive in addressing structural problems between two rising powers with complex disputes.

Xi has invited Modi to a third ‘informal summit’ in China and Modi has accepted. The ‘Wuhan spirit’ did help re-set relations somewhat but that dissipated after some time. The productivity of the ‘Chennai Connect’ will be closely watched, especially with regard to the yawning deficit. But importantly, will the connect established at Mamallapuram’s sunny beach survive the storms of Sino-Indian relations?


Dr Sudha Ramachandran is a Bengaluru-based independent analyst. She writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be contacted at Sudha.ramachandran@live.in

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