Diplomacy

Expert Gyan: Understanding the Purpose of the Wuhan India-China Summit

The Wire spoke to eminent China scholars for their views on the upcoming 'informal' India-China summit in Wuhan.

New Delhi: As Prime Minister Narendra Modi travels to China for an ‘informal’ summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, there has been increasing expectation that relations between the two Asian powers might finally be on the mend.

Ahead of his departure from Delhi, Modi said that they would be discussing “our respective visions and priorities for national development, particularly in the context of current and future international situation”. Earlier, officials in both countries had emphasised the unstructured nature of the meeting and that there will not be any ‘deliverables’ in the conventional sense.

Based on a questionnaire, senior foreign affairs analysts have shared their views and expectations of the upcoming India-China ‘informal’ summit in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. Earlier, The Wire had published the perspective of one of China’s most well-known foreign policy commentator, Shen Dingli.

Three of India’s top Chinese scholars have also shared their outlook about the summit based on their long observation of India-China relations.


Ashok Kantha

Former Indian Ambassador to China. Director, Institute of Chinese Studies.

Are there any current external geopolitical factors which may have convinced the Chinese and Indian leaders to sit down for this unusual diplomatic meeting? For example, is Donald Trump’s preoccupation with China’s trade policies a possible reason for Beijing agreeing to a Modi-Xi meeting at this juncture?

I believe that the fact that we are in the midst of geopolitical situation that is characterised by high degree of uncertainty, does make it useful for the two leaders to exchange views. But I would not like to link it specifically to trade measures being threatened by US and China against each other.

Ashok Kantha. Courtesy: Institute of Chinese Studies

From what I understand the idea of the informal summit has been around for some time, since Xiamen meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi on the side-lines of the BRICS summit. It is not that it (informal summit) has been thought up suddenly in response to some specific development. No doubt, when the leaders meet, they will exchange notes on what’s happening globally, some of the major challenges they are faced with and also the situation in the region.

As per both Indian and Chinese sources, the ‘informal’ summit will not have a set agenda, no pre-negotiated joint documents and will largely be a free-wheeling discussion. Do you think such a format could help in “strategic communication” at the highest level? Are there precedents for success of such summits?

Let me clarify that even in case of formal summit level meeting, it doesn’t have to be a pre-scripted agenda. In fact, ordinarily what happens is that officials do sit with each other, sort out the issues which may come up to prepare respective leaders, but it doesn’t have to be a list that they have to go through the meeting. So the agenda can be flexible (in a formal summit).

Here again, I expect that even though it is an informal summit, there has been preparatory consultations between the two sides. The external affairs minister, in her press statement after meeting with state councillor Wang Yi, did mention that her discussions were to prepare for the informal summit. So, I presume that we have exchanged notes on issues that may come up during the conversation, even though it will not be delegation level talks with an opening statement format.

According to Indian sources, a key purpose of the summit is for the two principals to understand the vision or domestic policy intentions of the other leader and how it shapes their external environment. Is this a new thing?

It’s not entirely a new thing to talk. In earlier meetings with Chinese leaders, a briefing on domestic situation, some of the pre-occupations did figure. China has completed 19th national congress of Communist Party of China and twin sessions of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. There have been very important developments in last few months. So President Xi will give a briefing of what has happened so far.

Do you see such the agenda-less format of the summit of being a help in dealing with specific issues like Nuclear Suppliers Group, UN listing for Masood Azhar and Belt and Road initiative, even if they are not discussed during the summit?

A meeting at the level of leaders is not the occasion to negotiate outcomes. That is done at preparatory meetings held at the lower level. There can be some fine-tuning at the leadership level. 

This time, what is being projected is that it is not outcome oriented, but understanding-oriented summit. The accent will not be on how to deal with issue ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’, but have a broader understanding on the global and regional situation and where they stand on the relations. I believe that the leaders will be addressing the structural challenges that have arisen. They will try to forge some consensus on how to address them, though it may not be in terms of specific issues as such. Unless structural challenges in India-China relationship are addressed and some roadmap is developed, taking this relationship forward in a meaningful manner would be challenging

The big issue that we are facing is of simultaneous re-emergence of India and China. How do we meet with each other on our shared periphery? What kind of prospect do we see for a global order that is in transition. Where do we meet in the greater vision? 

The leaders may ask officials to follow up broad template… we don’t know. But, there will be some outcome. It won’t be that they met and discussed. Ultimately, to an extent, it will be about managing expectations.

Is there any possibility of flexibility from China on India’s concerns on NSG and blocking the UN listing of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar? Similarly, can the Indian side slightly soften on opposition to Belt and Road Initiative?

I don’t know. On the Belt and road initiative, you must have seen the remarks that has been made at various levels, by the spokesperson and recently the position at the SCO foreign ministers’ meeting. That doesn’t show that there is any possibility of compromise


Alka Acharya

Former Director, Institute for Chinese Studies

Are there any current external geopolitical factors which may have convinced the Chinese and Indian leaders to sit down for this unusual diplomatic meeting? For example, is the Donald Trump’s preoccupation with China’s trade policies a possible reason for Beijing agreeing to a Modi-Xi meeting at this juncture?

The international scene is characterised by many uncertainties (old and new), and even potentially explosive situations – each adding to the overall complexity. There is a range of platforms where challenges and problems could be discussed by India and China and where the possible responses – independently or in coordination – could be explored. There are of course, many apprehensions with regard to Trump’s latest moves on the trade front and as the two countries which stand to be most affected by the US moves, it is obvious that it will figure in the discussions between Modi and Xi.

Alka Acharya. Credit: YouTube

The geopolitical crises are not, however, of the order that would necessitate an informal meeting at the highest level – especially when the Indian PM is due to visit China for the SCO summit in June, and a meeting on the sidelines could easily have been set up.

It may thus not be useful to identify one or two issues as having prompted this informal meeting – since it would suggest that there is a specific agenda and both are looking for a specific outcome. That is certainly not what has been communicated by the government sources.

The greater concern is stemming more from the state of affairs between the two Asian giants – the drift towards potentially dangerous scenarios, the lack of momentum in the economic ties, the inability to resolve their differences pitching them invariably on opposing sides – especially in the extended neighbourhood where the Chinese presence has begun to generate serious pressures and concerns in India. And this at a time when the need for coordinated approaches on a host of regional and global – on which there are clear convergences – could not be greater.

Moreover, Chinese and Indian development agendas have heightened their relevance to each If this meeting paves the way to reviving the enthusiasm with which Modi had started looking at China as the economic opportunity India needs badly, it would have served more than half its purpose.

As per both Indian and Chinese sources, the ‘informal’ summit will not have a set agenda, no pre-negotiated joint documents and will largely be a free-wheeling discussion. Do you think such a format could help in “strategic communication” at the highest level? Are there precedents for success of such summits?

Summit meetings are strongly symbolic occasions for the concerned countries and the people, (but also to others) they are also about reaffirming the past and working towards a promising future.

But they go beyond symbolism when they contribute to enhancing the quality of understanding and the degree to which they can provide a way out.

Hence, such meetings per se, formal or informal, are almost never about specifics – they are about the strategic picture. They are intended to be a meeting of minds, whether it is the issue of the current world order, the distribution of power – political, economic and military; or the nature of global political, financial and economic institutions and the manner in which they are to be recast.

However, this informal dialogue has also to be guided by a political and strategic vision about the relationship; but it could, given the immediate context of the meeting, also provide pointers for addressing specific issues – the extent to which both sides can reach compromises in specific bilateral irritants which are acting as retardants on the ties.

Successful outcomes of such meetings generally take some time to fructify in actual agreements. But they certainly can aid the process by creating a positive ambience.

The Sino-Indian dialogue has to be meaningful, substantial and in real earnest.

Do you see such the agenda-less format of the summit of being a help in dealing with specific issues like Nuclear Suppliers Group, UN listing for Masood Azhar and the Belt and Road initiative, even if they are not discussed during the summit?

As stated above, this informal dialogue has also to be guided by a political and strategic vision about the relationship; but it could, given the immediate context of the meeting, also provide pointers for addressing specific issues.

The issues mentioned above have been discussed threadbare over the last few years and certain sections of the strategic community in India have taken rather implacable positions – with very little scope for negotiation or give and take.

Officially as well, some issues, such as India’s participation in the Belt and Road have been flatly rejected.

However, the discussions should be able to explore how these roadblocks as it were, can be contextualised within the larger picture – and to what extent should they be permitted to act as retardants on the ties.

The difficulty is that were there to be an adjustment in the positions that have been taken so far, they are likely to be interpreted as having yielded to pressure or caved in to the more powerful Chinese. It remains to be seen how both leaders can address the sensitivities involved. 

Is there any possibility of flexibility from China on India’s concerns on NSG and blocking the UN listing of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar? Similarly, can the Indian side slightly soften on opposition to Belt and Road Initiative?

As stated above, these are extremely specific and highly-sensitive contentious issues on which the diplomatic negotiations are stuck. These cannot be issues on which a public declaration is likely – even if a broad understanding could be made between the two leaders, which could eventually bear fruit in the kind of agreements and policies that would follow in due course.


Manorajan Mohanty

Honorary Fellow and Former Chairperson, Institute of Chinese Studies, and the author of China’s Transformation: The Success Story and the Success Trap

Are there any current external geopolitical factors which may have convinced Chinese and Indian leaders to sit down for this unusual diplomatic meeting? 

There are both external and domestic factors influencing the decision for this ‘informal summit’ of Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping. External factors are not only Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on imports from China and the fast progress towards a US-North Korea summit but also China’s unfolding strategy to play a major role in most spheres in global affairs. Continuing tensions in China-India relations complicate that strategy by constantly attending to competing pressures.

Manorajan Mohanty. Credit: YouTube

Domestically, having taken many steps to consolidate his leadership – ending term limits, announcing Xi Jinping Thought, personally heading a dozen or more crucial decision-making committees – Xi cannot smoothly pursue his key development and connectivity agenda in global scale if India remains indifferent if not hostile.

For Modi too, the situation is similar. While getting closer to US, India cannot afford to scale down its relations with Russia which has almost built an alliance with China. At a time when India’s relations with most of its neighbours are going through an uneasy phase, a bold move on China may enhance Modi’s domestic image.

As per Indian and Chinese sources, the ‘informal’ summit will not have a set agenda, no pre-negotiated joint documents and will largely be a free-wheeling discussion. Do you think such a format could help in “strategic communication” at the highest level? Are there precedents for the success of such summits?

It is a format that can help set a framework to proceed and can still be of relevance if little advance is made in arriving at consensus on sensitive issues at this point. It allows frank statement of views and possible offers at the top level. There are precedents such as the Obama-Xi Jinping meeting in 2013 and Trump-Xi Jinping meeting last year. Actually, much communication takes place between trusted aides of the leaders prior to the meeting to identify the sticking points that need to be taken up at the highest level. The pressure of public statements sometimes precludes progress on sensitive issues. If they agree on some key questions then they can prepare the ground before making it public. Rajiv Gandhi’s meeting with Deng Xiaoping in 1988 and Vajpayee’s meeting with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao in 2003 were landmark meetings setting the framework.

According to Indian sources, a key purpose of the summit is for the two principals to understand the vision or domestic policy intentions of the other leader and how it shapes their external environment. Is that a useful outcome in your view?

The Chinese economic policies or statement on the vision are made in the Party forums as was done by Xi Jinping at the 19th Party Congress. and further amplified in other official forums. The spokespersons respond to questions about them. But specific concerns such as reducing China’s trade surplus with India, seeking complementarity between Make in India and Make in China 2025 through concrete initiatives could be taken up to give boost to the economic strategy in the respective countries. But there are enormous possibilities of joint initiatives in multilateral forums as well as bilaterally. 

Do you see such the agenda-less format of the summit of being a help in dealing with specific issues like Nuclear Suppliers Group, UN listing for Masood Azhar and Belt and Road initiative, even if they are not discussed during the summit?

It is ‘agenda-less’ only in name. But both leaders would have prepared well for their informal meetings. NSG, Masood Azhar and BRI will most likely figure. But there may not be immediate announcement on them. They would work out when and how their agreements should be made public.

Is there any possibility of flexibility from China on India’s concerns on NSG and blocking the UN listing of Jaish-e- Mohammad chief Masood Azhar? Similarly, can the Indian side slightly soften on opposition to Belt and Road Initiative?

There is clear possibility. India has to formulate its demand on Masood Azhar by admitting how badly Pakistani society has been hit. India and Pakistan have to enter into dialogue on all important matters. On many issues India, China and Pakistan have to enter into dialogue. On the Belt and Road Initiative, India and China have to address the concerns of each other. All of India’s neighbours have joined the BRI network. There are many projects which involve India indirectly if not directly. The BCIM (Bangladesh, India, China, Myanmar corridor) predates BRI, but is now a pat of the latter. This signature project of Xi Jinping has to be presented to Modi to convince him that is a mutually beneficial programme and not one to expand China’s sphere of influence. As in the US, entrepreneurs of India have also put pressure on the government to facilitate Chinese investment in India and open up opportunities in China.

But the forthcoming Modi-Xi summit should not be seen in its ability to respond to specific issues such as NSG or boundary dispute. The pressure from security experts would be to be “realistic and concrete”. This meeting can be much more significant to forge a framework of long term relationship that would allow them to not only handle specific bilateral problems, but play a democratic, not hegemonic, role in the region and globally to alter the character of the prevailing international political and economic order and promote peace, understanding and development.

To address the phenomena of growing inequality, violence and environmental degradation in their respective regions and globally, they have to demonstrate that they are indeed playing a historical role to contribute to the reshaping of the world process. Most importantly, they have to reaffirm their faith in dialogue even while having serious differences.

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