Modi-Xi meet, reason for hope

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a bilateral meet in Wuhan, China. (Reuters)

Although no agreements were signed or joint statement issued at the end of the ‘informal summit’ between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan, their meeting provides reason for hope. The two leaders have taken the first necessary steps towards re-setting bilateral relations. Sino-Indian ties deteriorated seriously last year in the wake of the 73-day-long Doklam crisis. In the months since, media reports have drawn attention to continuing Chinese road building activity near the site of last year’s crisis, fuelling fears in Delhi that another similar face-off was round the corner. It is amidst such apprehensions that the two sides decided on an informal summit between Modi and Xi to kick-start a new, positive phase in bilateral ties. The decision was a risky one. Thankfully, the gamble seems to have paid off.  Modi and Xi agreed that they would provide ‘strategic guidance’ to their respective militaries to improve communication, implement various confidence building measures and strengthen existing institutional mechanisms to prevent and manage situations in the border areas. If implemented on the ground, India and China can avoid the kind of tension that erupted during the Doklam crisis. Another positive outcome of the meeting was the decision to work together on an economic project in Afghanistan.  If implemented, this will be the first time that India and China will cooperate on a project in a third country.  In addition to contributing to war-ravaged Afghanistan’s development, the initiative will be important for Sino-Indian confidence building. The project could come under fire from agencies that are opposed to Sino-Indian cooperation. It could make China more sensitive to India’s concerns over terrorism emanating from Pakistan.

While such ‘informal summits’ between leaders are welcome, these are best used as ice-breakers.  Such meetings being rather opaque encourage deal-making rather than meaningful resolution of contentious issues. There has been some speculation in India that the ‘informal summit’ at Wuhan may have been used by Modi to convey to Xi to hold off on face-offs along the border at least till India’s general elections are over.  Such speculation would not take place if India and China were more transparent about what transpires at the highest levels.

Having broken the ice, Modi and Xi should begin to implement their promises. This may not be easy as they have to deal with civil and military bureaucrats whose mindsets are hard-wired with hawkish ideas. But it is the opposition to normalisation of relations with China that Modi is likely to face from within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar that he will find the hardest to overcome. But before that, he needs to convince himself that muscular policies are not useful vis-à-vis neighbours.

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Modi-Xi meet, reason for hope

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