Deconstructing Wuhan – The Formally Informal Summit?

What does this formally informal summit means for Indo-China diplomatic relations?

By Paras Ratna, Research Associate w/Strategic & Foreign Relations Practice at Rashtram

This article was published in the The Kootneeti

Image Source: The Hindu

The recent Xi Jinping- Narendra Modi bonhomie in Wuhan, billed as the ‘first informal summit’ between the leaders of both the countries, has generated much brouhaha in the policy-making circles across the globe. Analysts have interpreted this in their own ways depending upon their ideological situatedness. Notwithstanding their differences, they were unanimous in acknowledging the significance of this informal summit in the backdrop of Doklam standoff.  Personal diplomacy was leveraged to melt the ice between both India and China.

The choice of Wuhan, on the banks of Yangtze, was made by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, so as to showcase China’s economic might. However, this rapprochement is more than what meets the eye. It took place in the backdrop of shifting geopolitical realities and thus needs to be contextualized accordingly for the comprehensive understanding of the same.

Contextualizing Wuhan

Wuhan entailed discussions on a wide range of issues confronting both the countries. This “informal” summit was the result of four months of bureaucratic effort. Rhetoric aside, this summit took place when Indo-China relations had hit rock bottom post-Doklam. Besides Doklam, other issues which compounded the already intricate relationship was India’s refusal to Join Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s veto on India’s NSG (Nuclear Supplier Group) along with shielding of Pakistan from terrorism-related charges in the UN and its continuous forays into the South Asian and Indian Ocean neighborhood; Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka is the point in case. Frequent confrontations in the Himalayas, growing trade deficit in favour of China and stark divergence on the issues of regional and global importance necessitated political dialogue between both the countries.

The signs of rapprochement were visible when Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi consented to participate in the earlier postponed RIC (Russia-India-China) trilateral summit. This was followed by state councillor’s Yang Jiechi meeting with National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval.  However, the one which caught media glare was foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale ’s visit to China in February this year. Further, India was cautious not to irk China and ahead of the visit, officials were asked by cabinet secretary to not participate in 60thanniversary of Dalai Lama’s visit as it could have repercussions for Sino-India ties.

The shifting geopolitical realities, coupled with the threat of trade war with the US. The informal summit has an opportune moment for Chinese President Xi-Jinping to display its charm to India which it considers a potential US ally. The recent strain in the Indo-China relationship has forced India to drift sharply towards the US and the Indian Ocean is also witnessing quad formation.  Thus, anything which could slow down the drift is in Beijing’s interest, and in China’s calculation, this “Informal summit” could be one of those.

Besides, the recent rapprochement in the Korean peninsula didn’t involve China in any significant manner. The US stole the show. In fact, Chinese had to struggle to invite Kim- Jong-un so as to showcase its relevance. Sanctions on Iran have caused alike jitters to both China and India. For India, the sanction may further delay the operationalisation of Chabahar port while for Beijing, Tehran holds a central place in Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Thus, cooperative relations with India (without any significant diplomatic or political concessions) could be leveraged as a pressure point against these arbitrary sanctions.

With 2019 general elections approaching, Modi, who is facing the heat in domestic politics due to rising fuel prices, joint opposition and farm distress; tranquillity at Indo-China border is a necessity, even if it comes with a tag of appeasement. Notwithstanding, Modi’s active engagement on the diplomatic front; it has fallen short of delivering the desired results. The US is putting sanctions at the expense of India. No exemption has been made to India, be it with regards to Russia (deal with S-400) or with regards to oil imports from Iran. The recent cancellation of “2+2” events by the US citing “unavoidable reasons” has given a jolt to Indo-US relations. The uncertainty in President Trump’s approach to the region further necessitated a pragmatic rapprochement with China.  The neighbourhood too is witnessing significant Chinese forays resulting in subsequent shrinkage of India’s strategic space in its own backyard. Very often India’s neighbours play China card and vice-versa as an act of balancing. Thus, given the fragile political equilibrium, it makes sense to have a workable relationship with China.  This context was essential for comprehensive understanding of dynamics at play behind the Xi-Modi bonhomie.

Wuhan and beyond: major takeaways from the summit?

Though this informal summit entailed ‘2 days, 7 events and 9 hours’; there wasn’t any agreement signed and neither any joint statement. Post-Doklam, the emphasis of Indo-China relations is on border peace management. In this regard, both leaders have consented to issue strategic guidance to their respective militaries.

Another significant outcome was the Indo-China expression of interest in a joint economic project in Afghanistan. This could ruffle Pakistani feathers. However, given India’s opposition to BRI, it remains to be seen how it unfolds. In this case India could do well by adopting a nuanced approach; to quote Shyam Saran, Ex-Foreign Secretary “India needs to exercise pragmatism with respect to Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and participate in those projects which may improve India’s access to Central Asian market and resources, while raising red flag wherever it violates Indian interest”. This essentially means that India shouldn’t participate in CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) where its sovereignty is at stake but can collaborate with China in the regions where its sovereignty is not at stake.

On the other hand, this proposal to collaborate in Afghanistan followed by China’s attempt to have China-India-Pakistan trilateral summit under the ambit of SCO points to how China wants to get its BRI ball rolling without offering much or any concession on its Part. China’s reluctance to agree on the connectivity through the LAC on Kargil, Ladakh, Xinjiang and Tibet; these regions shared linkages with Central Asia in terms of history, culture and trade further corroborate the point. In fact, Beijing has refused to reopen Indian consulates in Lhasa. Thus, as evident, China’s attempt is mostly to play the role of big brother by bringing these two adversaries together and flaunt itself as Asian superpower.

Besides all rhetoric of Asian century, thorny issues remain as it is.  Chinese stance on Doklam is same. No concessions were made with reference to CPEC. The trade deficit is yet to be addressed. To be fair, these issues can’t be addressed overnight and requires tedious backdoor diplomacy for which moving out of an adversarial relationship is necessary and thus, Wuhan’s success could be measured in that aspect.  As far as managing Indo-China relationship is concerned, the only way forward for India is to minimize the power gap through the sustained and speedy development of economy coupled with the strengthening of defence apparatus.

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