'Who Will Move First?': Is a Modi-Xi Meeting on the Cards at Johannesburg?

The joint India-China press release issued earlier this week had signalled that there may be a mood to make such a meeting happen.

New Delhi: While there is interest in a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, such an eventuality hinges on which side will place a request first. 

Besides the actual G-20 summit in September, one of the other important spotlights from the Indian perspective was going to be a meeting of the host, Modi, with Xi. It appears that a substantive meeting, their first since the start of the border stand-off in May 2020, may happen sooner than that, if things pan out.

It is learnt that there is certainly interest in India for a meeting to take place between the two leaders in South Africa. However, informed sources say the pressing issue now revolves around customary protocol – specifically in determining which side will initiate the formal request for the meeting.

While relations have gone into a deep freeze since May 2020, there has been several rounds of military and diplomatic talks between the two countries, which eventually led to disengagement at certain friction points. And yet there has been no further progress on the remaining points of Depsang and Demchok for two years, which renders the situation ripe for political intervention.

There has already been strong indication for some weeks that positive atmospherics were being created for a possible bilateral meeting between the two leaders.

The joint press release issued earlier this week had signalled this mood. Ranging from “positive” to “forward-looking”, the common readout of the Indian and Chinese Corp commanders’ meeting last weekend had a high concentration of optimistic-sounding descriptors about the discussions on the continuing stand-off at eastern Ladakh.

There have been other joint press releases after military talks in the last three years. However, even those releases did not contain as many affirmative words and phrases as there were in the most recent document.

With the leadership meeting still not finalised, there is always uncertainty about whether it will take place till the minute. There had been similar buzz about a Modi-Xi meeting in the run-up to the SCO summit in Samarkand last year. That speculation had been fueled by the completion of disengagement at Gogra-Hot Springs in mid-July 2022. Nonetheless, no meeting between Xi and Modi transpired in Uzbekistan.

This year, the weightage attributed to the conjecture regarding a potential bilateral meeting in South Africa is also linked to the upcoming G-20 summit.

India would also certainly China’s support to get the maximum bang for the buck out of the Delhi declaration of the G-20 summit. While the Ukraine issue will continue to see dissension from Russia and China, India would require China to not put a spanner in the work for a range of other subjects that are priority policies for the Indian PM.

For example, China has been regularly objecting on including any reference to Modi government’s pet concepts like LiFe and promotion of millets in the main outcome document at the ministerial meetings. India has, of course, also blocked any mention of tell-tale phrases e reflecting ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, as well as, pet projects like Global Development Initiative and Global Security Initiative.

While Indian officials are not holding their breath on finding a consensus over language regarding Ukraine in the G-20 final declaration, China’s cooperation remains essential to enable New Delhi to assert that there was unanimous backing for the predominant portion of the outcome document.

Earlier this year, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi had already held two rounds of meeting with Indian interlocutors, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. 

After the Doval-Wang meeting, the Chinese readout stated that there had been exchange of remarks between the top Indian and Chinese leaders at the G-20 dinner summit in Bali. It was a previously unreported conversation, with the Indian side having only mentioned that there was an exchange of courtesies.

When Indian media asked for clarification, New Delhi did not dismiss the Chinese version, but rather seemed to endorse it to an extent. This was a surprise to most observers who are aware of the MEA’s usual template of available replies. The spokesperson’s implicit acknowledgment that the complete details had not been furnished eight months earlier came as a surprise.

Next week, the leaders of the bloc of five emerging economies will be meeting physically for their first summit since 2019. While the Russian president Vladimir Putin will not attend due to the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant, the Chinese foreign ministry confirmed today, August 18, that Xi Jinping would travel to South Africa for a four-day visit. The foreign trip, from April 21 to 24, is relatively long by Chinese standards and is going to include both a BRICS summit and a bilateral state visit.

As per current schedule, Modi and his entourage will reach South Africa on August 22, in the evening according to local time. He will attend the informal meet for participating leaders after arrival. The main BRICS summit will be held on August 23, with the next day reserved for the BRICS outreach sessions. The Indian PM will depart for New Delhi on Thursday evening.

Even though South Africa has invited many African leaders as special invitees, it is understood there is enough time in the schedule for the Indian PM to have a substantive bilateral meeting with the Chinese leader. As usual, the dilemma – a common one for Indian diplomats faced with a potential meeting with Chinese or Pakistani leadership – centres on who makes the first request.