Summit low on visible outcomes

Modi Xi

The just-concluded second ‘informal summit’ between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mamallapuram was high on atmospherics and photo opportunities but low on visible outcomes. Expectations over the summit were low. Relations between the two countries have chilled considerably since early August when the Modi government announced the revocation of Article 370 and divided the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories. India was upset that China along with Pakistan took what is an internal matter to the United Nations Security Council. A week ago, India carried out a massive military exercise in Arunachal Pradesh, the territory over which China lays claim. Considering this rough run-up, it is surprising that the Mamallapuram meeting produced anything at all. The two sides decided on setting up a new high-level mechanism to look into trade and investment issues. They agreed that terrorism is a “common threat” and that they would continue to make “joint efforts” at tackling it on a “non-discriminatory basis. It remains to be seen whether this intent will be translated into practice.

The first informal summit at Wuhan in April last year was a response to the 73-day eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the Indian and Chinese armed forces at Doklam. The Wuhan summit didn’t produce a joint statement but was relatively productive. The two sides agreed to manage their relations so that differences do not escalate into disputes, by agreeing to provide ‘strategic guidance’ to their respective militaries to improve communication. In other words, they dealt with the main issue of concern at that time — the possibility of military confrontation. This time, Xi and Modi ducked talking about the key issue that frayed ties in recent months — Kashmir.

‘Informal summits’ are useful as they allow leaders to have free-wheeling discussions away from officials. Both at Wuhan and Mamallapuram, Xi and Modi reportedly had “heart-to-heart” and “candid” discussions. Hopefully, the Mamallapuram meeting will push Sino-Indian relations out of the rut it has fallen into. However, these by themselves cannot improve bilateral relations that are bedevilled by serious territorial disputes and trade deficits. Relations between two rising powers that are rivals and neighbours to boot are tricky. Those between India and China have a long history and are complicated by Pakistan’s relations with Beijing. Such issues need to be addressed by in-depth discussions and structured dialogue. The road from Mamallapuram will not be easy but Modi and Xi cannot avoid discussing nettlesome issues any longer.

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