Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to travel to Wuhan in central China for an “informal summit” with the Chinese President Xi Jinping. The visit comes against the backdrop of nearly two years of friction between India and China over a whole host of issues including the Doklam standoff, India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) bid, and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The bilateral relationship plummeted to an all-time low in the wake of friction on multiple fronts. But in December last year, two high-level visits from China suggested the need for a fresh review of the relationship. Within a few weeks of each other, both the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and State Councilor Yang Jiechi visited India.
Since early February this year, there have been efforts from the Indian side too – the cancellation of the Dalai Lama’s events in Delhi marking the occasion of 60 years in exile of the Dalai Lama, was the first indication of the Indian outreach to China. In a note to Cabinet Secretary PK Sinha, India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said it is a “very sensitive time” in India’s bilateral relations with China and therefore, it is “not desirable” for government officials and other leaders to take part in the celebrations of the Tibetan government in exile.
Several weeks later, it was reported that the Indian government had actually informed China about this before advisory was sent out. Informing China appears to have been undertaken to earn some brownie points with Beijing. India’s overtures to China seems like a one-way process as yet, because China is yet to take any reciprocal steps.
The idea of an informal summit was first floated during the visit of the Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale to China on February 23. Modi agreed to the summit in principle when he called Xi to congratulate him on the extension of his tenure in March. Since then, there have been visits by other officials, including India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, who have fine-tuned various details in preparing for Modi’s summit in Wuhan. In fact, it was Sushma Swaraj, in a joint press conference with the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who announced that Modi will visit China. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou too travelled to India in April to finalize the summit details.
Even though Modi will be traveling to China for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit on June 9-10, the Indian leadership took the bold decision to make another earlier visit for the summit. The idea of an informal meeting is not to have a set agenda and engage in a free-flowing conversation between the two leaders. The conversation could include the domestic political and economic climate in both the countries, regional developments like the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and international ones such as the U.S.-China trade war. While it is impossible to predict the outcome of this meeting, the importance and consequence of the state of Sino-Indian relationship for Asian security and stability cannot be ignored.
There is disquiet in New Delhi because China has not demonstrated any reciprocal efforts to pacify India. On the contrary, China has engaged in additional efforts to boost its military forces in the Doklam area, as well as in other areas along the disputed Sino-Indian border. Construction of a new road and military posts (at least two) in Shaksgam Valley, north of Siachen Glacier, in the past few months also raises concerns. Shaksgam Valley is located in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and was ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963, although India does not acknowledge this and treats the Valley as part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
This may not yet pose itself as a direct threat to Indian armed forces deployed in Siachen Glacier, Nonetheless, the Chinese action was described by the former Indian army Northern Army Commander Lt. Gen. DS Hooda as a “provocative” step.
There is thus considerable skepticism in India about the summit. Progress on the bilateral front will be judged on whether Beijing shows some sensitivity to Indian concerns on the BRI and CPEC, on India’s NSG bid, and on terrorism. China’s rising influence and growing footprint in South Asia and Indian Ocean are of concern to India and China has not acted to reassure India about China’s long-term intentions.
Nevertheless, China appears to believe that India has agreed to the Wuhan summit because New Delhi has recognized the follies of the so-called Indo-Pacific partnership with the United States and Japan and the ill-effects of that strategy on Sino-Indian relations. Some Chinese analysts suggest that many of the frictions in India-China relations are a result of “lack of trust” or “Western instigation.”
But so far, there is also little indication that India will bend. For instance, on the BRI, India has officially stated that “the so-called ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ violates India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. “No country can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the statement continues. “We are of firm belief that connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality, and must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Indeed Sushma Swaraj reiterated this at the SCO Foreign Minister’s meeting and stated: “Connectivity with SCO countries is India’s priority. We want connectivity to pave the way for cooperation and trust between our societies. For this, respect for sovereignty is essential. Inclusivity, transparency and sustainability are imperative. India has cooperated extensively with the international community for enhanced connectivity.” India has once again refused to endorse the BRI.
All of this, as well as the efforts on both sides to lower expectations, suggest that not much should be expected out of the informal summit. Indeed, beyond some general and temporary stabilization of ties, it is not exactly clear what either side will get out of this meeting.