By Nilova Roy Chaudhury
The picturesque central Chinese city of Wuhan, on the banks of the Yangtze river, will host what is being called an “informal summit” between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 27 and 28 in a major effort to improve the trajectory of their bilateral relations, plagued over the last year by a series of missteps.
Modi will travel to Wuhan for the hurriedly convened summit to have a tete-a-tete with Xi. The aim is to reset the relationship and find a new paradigm for bilateral ties, recovering from a difficult phase in 2017, which even saw troops from both countries face off at disputed territory in Doklam in Bhutan for two and a half months.
The meeting, to be held over two days, with just a handful of aides including the National Security Advisers, is intended to give the two leaders a chance to spell out their vision and priorities, explore ideas and arrive at some kind of understanding on how to reduce “misunderstandings and miscommunications”, an official said, and move ahead “amicably”.
Particularly on how to reduce tensions, address and manage their differences over issues like the boundary, China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Dalai Lama, while allowing the economic relationship to improve between the world's two populous nations and largest economies. Afghanistan, Syria, deteriorating ties between Russia and the West and the trade war between the United States and China are likely to be high on the agenda of the several hours of talks Xi and Modi will hold.
The summit was formally confirmed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after his meeting with visiting External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
“President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi will have an informal summit on April 27-28 in Wuhan,” said Wang at a joint media interaction in Beijing on Sunday, April 22. “Prime Minister Modi will be visiting the central Chinese city at the invitation of President Xi,” Wang said.
“The two leaders will have communications of a strategic nature concerning the once in a century shifts going on in the world. They will also exchange views on overarching long-term and strategic matters concerning the future of China-India relations,” Wang said.
“My discussion with Minister Wang Yi was to prepare for the informal meeting between our leaders. The informal summit will be an important occasion for them to exchange views on bilateral and international matters from an over-arching and long-term perspective with the objective of enhancing mutual communication at the level of leaders,” Swaraj said.
Swaraj is in China for talks with Wang and to take part in the two-day meeting of Foreign Ministers of the eight-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is also in Beijing to meet with her counterparts and soothe frayed military tempers after Doklam.
2017 was close to being an “annus horribilis” in bilateral ties, with several below the surface, festering differences, like the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, like China refusing to allow India entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and refusing to designate the Jaish-e-Muhammad leader Masood Azhar as an international terrorist by the UN, surfacing menacingly. The 73-day standoff at Doklam, ending days ahead of the BRICS summit, was 2017’s low point.
The Wuhan summit is intended to send a signal not just to the two countries that the leaders will aim to give an "honest try" to chart a course on the future of the bilateral relationship, but also to the international community that India and China are serious about mending fences. Modi and Xi will look to steer through a maze of differences, including on the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and other maritime niggles, and build a level of strategic trust and communication among themselves.
It will be Modi’s fourth visit to China since he assumed office in May 2014 and his second bilateral visit, after 2015, when he visited Xian. He went to Hangzhou for the G20 summit in 2016 and also attended the BRICS summit in Xiamen last year. He is due to make his fifth visit, to the Chinese city of Qingdao, in June this year for the SCO summit.
After the low of Doklam, a series of high-level bilateral visits, aimed to set the ties back on track, began with Wang’s visit to India in December and two meetings between National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale’s visit to Beijing in February set the tenor for the reset, with India “advising” the Tibetan community to take celebrations to commemorate 60 years of the Dalai Lama’s entry to India out of New Delhi. The main celebrations were moved to Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama is based.
It is interesting that the announcement of the Modi-Xi summit happened on a day when the Dalai Lama addressed a well-attended gathering in New Delhi, hosted by the Antar Rashtriya Sahayog Parishad or Indian Council for International Cooperation, an NGO affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organisation of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Beijing is very wary of and abhors the Dalai Lama - whom it has called a "splittist" - even has called him a and wants New Delhi to keep a distance from the Tibetan spiritual leader.
(Nilova Roy Chaudhury is Editor, India Review & Analysis. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)