China’s Xi, India’s Modi Start Talking Again

While the world was focused over the weekend on the historic meeting of the Korean peninsula’s two leaders, the President and Prime Minister of Asia’s two biggest countries were holding a rare high-profile meeting that could herald a period of improved relations.

India’s Narendra Modi flew to the Chinese city of Wuhan on April 27 for an informal two-day summit with Xi Jinping, China’s president, after confrontations dating back to last summer on their disputed border high in the Himalayas, plus angry exchanges and threats exchanged between spokesmen and commentators.

Nothing of major long-term significance was achieved, though good words were exchanged about “peace and tranquility.” There were none of the multi-billion joint agreements and memoranda of understanding that usually accompany summits – a fact that may point to the seriousness of the get-together.

It was however agreed there would be a joint India-China economic project (yet to be identified) in Afghanistan, which is important because the two countries are both active there but have not cooperated. There also seems to be some understanding about India’s refusal so far to join in with China’s massive One Belt Road international infrastructure plan linking Asia with Europe.

Both men played to each other’s substantial egos with photo opportunities. Modi revels in travelling the world for photo-op meetings – a week before Xi, he was with Queen Elizabeth and, (less relevantly) Prime Minister Theresa May, plus 51 other Commonwealth leaders in London.

In Wuhan, Modi enjoyed the distinction of being the only foreign leader for whom Xi has traveled out of Beijing, extolling (in Hindi) that “this in itself is love towards India and your affection towards India, which is visible…. this is a welcome for India. I express my gratitude from my heart.”

At the end of the meetings, two separate statements were issued on what had been discussed and achieved, though they did not emphasize all the same points, and India generated much more publicity than China, which played the event low-key.

India stressed joint efforts to avoid confrontations in the Himalayas, saying the two leaders have given “strategic guidance” to their militaries “to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs.”

That enabled Modi to show back home that he had achieved something positive by toning down the risk of an armed conflict. Newspapers dutifully produced appropriate headlines such as “Modi, Xi direct their armies to build trust” in the Indian Express and “Avoid future Doklams & build trust Xi, Modi tell their armies” in the Times of India.

The Chinese statement had no such pledge. It merely talked about “the two militaries will strengthen confidence-building measures and enhance communication and cooperation to uphold border peace and tranquility”.

The meeting was however described as a “milestone in relations” by a Chinese official talking to reporters, which was over-interpreted by one India news-site headline proclaiming: “Wuhan talks reflect China’s acceptance of India as a major Asian power.”

Modi with Xi at the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan

Modi has sounded tough against China since last summer when the two countries’ armies had a 10-week confrontation at Doklam, a remote plateau in Bhutan on their undefined border known as the Line of Actual Control. The face-off eventually ended with an understanding that enabled both sides to claim an advantage, but nothing was settled and reports indicate that China has been embedding itself long-term on the plateau instead of backing off.

Along with other countries, India is reassessing its response to China’s increasingly global reach. On the one hand, it is becoming more active in international organizations such as the UK-based Commonwealth, shedding its traditional role of an often reluctant and frequently negative participant. At the same time, it is prepared to go along with China’s blandishments while also maintaining stronger relations Japan, Australia and the US in an alliance against China known as the Quad.

Xi was probably setting the scene for the annual meeting next month in China of the Beijing-based Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which brings together countries from the old Soviet empire and Asia. Presumably he did not want that to be upset by conflict with India.

Diplomats and some analysts in Delhi see the meeting more in terms of wider international relations than a primarily bilateral event. They suggest that Xi wants to consolidate relations with China’s Asian neighbors alongside supporting Donald Trump’s possible summit with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un.

Maybe Xi is modifying his tactics, having achieved his ambition at the National People’s Congress in March to remain president indefinitely. Before that happened, he established himself as a tough leader with neighbors from Japan to Vietnam and India and tried to commandeer the South China Sea and other regional waterways.

He can now afford to choose his targets more selectively and there is no urgency to confront India openly in the Himalayas. Beijing has settled border disputes with 12 of its 14 neighbors, and will choose the timing with India and Bhutan, which are the remaining two.

The Wuhan meeting does not mean that India and China are about to settle the border, nor that confrontation between the two in the Himalayas will stop, nor that China will reduce its military capability there. But at least the leaders are talking again.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.