Much ado about nothing!

Modi-Jinping Meet

By Dr D.K. Giri
(Prof. International Politics, JMI)

Let us recall a famous quote on concept of time in politics, attributed to Harold Wilson, the two-time Prime Minister of Britain. After a debate in the British Parliament in 1964, Wilson commented, “The challenger is enjoying a surge in popularity after the debate, but there is still time before the election, and a week is a long time in politics”. Likewise, our Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to be riding on the apparent success of his unprecedented informal meeting(s) with Chinese President Xi-Jinping, but there is a year to go for Parliament elections.
Arguably, one would like to say Modi’s external visits are increasingly addressing the domestic issues, especially around the elections. His last visit to England for the Commonwealth meeting included a talk-show where he was taking questions from India on domestic issues. Likewise, his recent visit to China with no specific agenda surprised many observers. Admittedly, any thaw in any bilateral conflict, and beginning of peace and tranquillity through confidence building measures like the ones we saw on 27th and 28th April, are welcome.
The visit draws another parallel in history with a small difference. In 1970s, USA wanted to build relations with China, as a counter to Soviet Union. However, they had no diplomatic relations with China. So, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger paid a secret visit to China during his trip to Pakistan. Apparently, he announced that he was not well, and would not meet anyone for two days, during which, he slipped into China. The agenda was known, but the visit was a secret, whereas, in this case, Modi’s visit was known, but the agenda of the meetings were kept a secret.
Therefore, the no-agenda meetings raise suspicion on the outcome. Both the leaders met six-times in 24 hours, two with their respective delegations, on the lake-side walk, boat-ride, sight-seeing etc., what did they talk for so long, and so many times; some of the meetings exceeding the scheduled time? The resume of the meetings trickled out through ‘measured’ and calibrated press conferences, and media releases from both sides.
The third parallel is, India and China have had bouts of intimacy in their bilateral relations. The famous ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai’, phase was short lived, broken in letter and spirit leading to violent conflicts between the two countries. When our Foreign Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was on a good-will visit to China, to talk peace and friendship, China attacked Vietnam. Given the history of Chinese duplicitous behaviour, it is hard to pin much hope on such an exchange between Modi and Jinping.
Leaving aside the bitter memories, speculation on the motives of the visit, and a bit of cynicism, let us focus on the highlights of the meetings, and what they could mean for the bilateral relations. Also, times, conditions and relations between countries change, and could changed radically. Again, another perceptive leader of Great Britain had said, “In international relations, there are no permanent friends, or permanent enemies, only permanent interests”. That is why we see Germany and Japan who were enemies of the US and Western Europe during World War II are now their allies vis-a-vis their current rivals China and Russia who were their allies earlier in the same war. So, India and China can become friends and partners despite their animosity in the past.
We have to engage in such conjectures as the meetings between Modi and Jinping came up with no-agreement, no joint-statement. It is hard to evaluate the outcome. Some observers including Ram Madhav, part of BJP think-tank on government’s foreign policy says, the meeting in Wuhan was not outcome-centric, but understanding-centric. We can however, reflect on the proceedings which may indicate the way things might move between New Delhi and Beijng.
The main objective of the informal meetings was, according to the MEA, to make up the trust-deficit, and the second being following the first, is to re-set the relations. It seems a new spirit of warmth and camaraderie was generated during the visit. Modi was taken to Wuhan, in central China, known as the happiest city of China. Xi-Jinping in his welcome statement said, “Prime Minister, you have been to the East and West China, we thought of inviting you to the Centre of China.” Modi responded by extolling the natural beauty of the city and how he had visited Wuhan in his previous role as Gujarat CM, to study the building-process of the city.
Modi was welcomed with a bollywood song of 1982 which was evocative of new friendship between the two leaders and countries. Xi-Jinping took personal interest in menu etc. prepared for Modi. Many of the gestures were symbolic of building the relations afresh, based on friendship, and understanding. The Chinese seem to have guessed that Modi may win at least another term of five years and Xi has it for his life-time, it is prudent to build a personal equation with the Indian PM. Overtures to friendship were evident all through the itinerary.
A few joint-decisions that have emerged include: to have a strategic and a long-term view of things between New Delhi and Beijing; to issue strategic guidance to their respective militaries, aimed at de-escalation of tension. This is important as India and China have 23 areas of dispute along their 4057 kms of border from Ladhak to Arunachal Pradesh. It should be noted that there were 426 transgressions by PLA, the Chinese Army, and 228 face-offs. So, de-escalation, if it happens, will provide the diplomatic ambience for constructive talks.
Third, both countries “agreed to significantly enhance efforts to build on the convergences through established mechanisms, in order to create broadest possible platform for future relationship.” It was good to emphasise on the existing ‘modus vivendi’, rather than creating new ones, except replacing the non-working bits.
Fourth, both leaders committed themselves to cooperating in counter terrorism. This is a major gain for India, as it will send a strong signal to Pakistan. This was also a persisting irritant between Beijing and New Delhi as the former was stubborn on not listing Hafiz Saeed as a global terrorist. Fifth, China and India agreed to run joint economic projects in Afghanistan. Again, this would raise the heckles in Pakistan.
Sixth, both leaders identified 20 mechanisms, including trade and cultural exchange, and global issues like terrorism and climate change. Modi, offered a five point formulae for re-building relationship, not to confuse with Panchsheel though. The formulae consist of a “common vision, better communication, strong relationship, shared thought process and shared values.
The Chinese media held it as a historic visit. It reported that Xi-Jinping wished to open a new chapter with India. It is a landmark visit, said the Chinese Daily. The media outline-run by the Communist Party of China “the informal summit may herald the century of Asia”.
Let us keep our fingers crossed on the follow-up of this historic event. I am just worried that bilateralism cannot be carried out independent of multilateralism. Both India and China will have to take a shared world view. To end with a Chinese proverb, “if you pull a twig, the entire bush is shaken”, which means, one cannot just discuss one issue independent of the rest of the allied issues. China has to come clean on Pakistan, Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka, to deal with India.—INFA