By Nilova Roy Chaudhury
The trans-Himalayan summit, featuring the leaders of India and China in the picturesque central Chinese city of Wuhan on the banks of the Yangtze River on April 27 and 28, was not intended to deliver any major agreements. The “informal summit” between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping was a serious effort to ‘reset’ the relationship and improve the trajectory of their bilateral relations, plagued over the last year by a series of missteps, culminating in the military standoff at Doklam.
There was, unexpectedly, a press release at the end of the two-day summit, which was full of meetings between Modi and Xi in picturesque, tranquil settings, where the two leaders exchanged “views on overarching issues of bilateral and global importance.”
They agreed that it was most important for them to build on convergences and speak more regularly through the officially structured mechanisms between them, so that divergences did not reach a flashpoint.
“They agreed to significantly enhance efforts to build on the convergences through the established mechanisms in order to create the broadest possible platform for the future relationship,” the statement said.
Significantly, “the two leaders underscored the importance of maintaining peace and tranquillity in all areas of the India-China border region,” and “to this end, they issued strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding and enhance predictability in the management of border affairs.”
With Xi also the head of the Chinese armed forces, the “guidance” would send a signal to the militaries, poised along the disputed boundary, to keep their weapons covered.
What is also significant in the context of them “recognizing the common threat posed by terrorism,” is an decision to work jointly on a project in Afghanistan, where both have major interests. While this is not necessarily a Belt and Road project, their agreeing to work jointly on a development project in a third country indicates that they are willing to try options that promote bilateral cooperation.
Modi and Xi also “agreed to push forward bilateral trade and investment in a balanced and sustainable manner by taking advantage of the complementarities between their two economies,” the statement said.
Officials indicated that Beijing would soon move to release funds for some projects agreed upon when Xi visited India in September 2014.
The summit may not have had big ticket outcomes, but for Modi the optics could have significant dividends if the India - China border remains peaceful and some trade issues are fixed in the run-up to Indian election year.
Modi travelled to Hubei province for the hurriedly convened summit for the tete-a-tete with Xi, hoping to reset what former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao called “a relationship in therapy” and find a new paradigm for bilateral ties, recovering from a difficult phase in 2017.
The meetings, held over two days, with just a handful of aides including the national security advisers in attendance, gave Modi and Xi a chance to revisit their ties and 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. The bulk of the discussions focused on how to improve synergies, 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 advance between the world’s two most populous nations and largest economies.
Afghanistan, Syria, deteriorating ties between Russia and the West and the trade war between the United States and China were high on the agenda of the over eight hours of talks Xi and Modi held.
It is interesting that the Chinese chose to hold the summit in scenic Wuhan, away from the formal environs of Beijing, where the pressure of immediate outcomes would be high. Modi is the first leader Xi has hosted this way, now twice, outside Beijing.
The “informal” setting provided an opportunity for them to gauge each other’s preferences, considered crucial in today’s increasingly personalised way of conducting foreign policy. The ideas thrown up would percolate down to the officials.
India’s refusal to back down at Doklam last year and increasing universal usage of the term “Indo-Pacific” for the area once termed the Asia-Pacific has made Beijing look anew at India’s global standing and take notice. Beijing’s trade woes with Washington also make India an attractive prospect for China.
The Wuhan summit was intended to send a signal not just to the two countries that the leaders aimed 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. That Modi and Xi chose to meet and steer their way 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 is itself a considerable move forward.
The Wuhan summit was 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 visited Hangzhou for the G20 summit in 2016 and 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
(The author is Editor, India Review & Analysis. She can be contacted at email@example.com)