'Informal India-China Summit Only Useful If Discussions Are Honest'

Speaking to The Wire, Chinese commentator Shen Dingli said that President Xi has already gone through such ‘informal’ summits with two US presidents, which failed to live up to their hype.

New Delhi: Even as he pointed out that previous ‘informal’ US-China summits have not really worked, Chinese commentator Shen Dingli noted that the success of the forthcoming summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan would depend not on the lack of protocol, but “honesty” in discourse – which may not be realistically achievable.

The central Chinese city, which is famous as the location of Mao’s summer villa, will host the leaders of China and India for two days starting April 27. Modi will be travelling for this meeting to China less than a month before he will be back in the country for the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit. The format will be ‘informal’, with no structured agenda and no joint statements to be released after the two days of discussions.

India is hoping that this informal summit will foster ‘strategic communication’, which could stabilise the relationship between the two Asian powers. Despite two standalone hometown summits and about a dozen meetings on the sidelines of multilateral events between Modi and Xi, relations between India and China have been strained in the last couple of years, with persistent differences over India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, UN listing of a Pakistan-based militant group as a global terrorist and the long face-off between troops at Doklam.

In answer to emailed questions from The Wire, Shen Dingli, who is one of China’s best-known foreign affairs analysts, said that Xi has already gone through ‘informal’ summits with two US presidents, which did not live up to their hype.

In June 2013, Xi and Barack Obama took part in a ‘shirt-sleeves’ summit at a California ranch to build a new type of “great power” relationship. Similarly, President Donald Trump hosted Xi at the Mar-a-Lago estate in April 2018. Both those summits were then touted as having taken US-China relations to a new high. The reality soon took over once the leaders left those enclosed buildings – with cybersecurity being Obama’s bugbear, and Trump remaining preoccupied with Chinese trade tactics.

Shen Dingli. Credit: Twitter

Shen, currently professor of international relations at China’s Fudan University, felt that the format of a diplomatic event was not as important, but rather its “content and honesty”. However, he is sceptical on how candid discussions can get at that level.

According to Indian sources, one key objective was to get the two leaders to understand each other’s domestic vision and its impact on external policy.

Citing the example of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, Shen was not sure there could be much transparency – as conversations about its domestic realpolitik compulsions would likely dampen the ‘feel good’ informality of the summit.

Excerpts from the interview:

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 US president’s preoccupation with China’s trade policies a possible reason for Beijing agreeing to a Modi-Xi meeting at this juncture?

I think not. China can easily make a compromise with the US on its trade dispute with Washington and would have no need to bother India. What India can do? To accept more Chinese goods when they cannot enter the US? India would definitely not welcome (such) Chinese goods.

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 successful precedents of such summits?

No. All similar China-US summits in 2013 in Los Angeles and in 2017 in Florida have failed to help relations, even for one or two years. What is important is not the formality, but the content and honesty.

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?

It doesn’t hurt, while (it) doesn’t help (either). China cannot say as it has a domestic agenda of stimulating its economy through the time of New Normal, it shall have a reason to build CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) through PoK (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir). Such an explanation, if it aspires to do, would only destroy this informal talk.

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

As I said above, it neither hurts nor helps. What is important is whether one side would accept other’s term and change its own behaviour. If they only talk without mutual compromise, such talk could even hurt their relations.

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 am not a part of the government and not in a position to comment. The view in this country is controlled and I am not supposed to say more. I would only say if I were Indian, I would not soften my position.