From the warmth that greeted him in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Narendra Modi headed Thursday to Hamburg for the
G-20 summit, and what would be his first encounter with Chinese President Xi Jinping amid the ongoing border stand-off between the two countries, which has led to a chill in bilateral ties.
China has already set the tone, with a senior government official saying Thursday that “the atmosphere is not right for a bilateral meeting between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi”.
Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Gopal Baglay, who is travelling with the Prime Minister in Israel, made it clear that there was no official meeting with Xi slotted on Modi’s Hamburg schedule.
“As mentioned earlier, the PM is visiting Hamburg from July 6 to 8 for the G-20 summit. His bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the summit are with Argentina President Mauricio Macri, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, Italy, Japan PM Shinzo Abe, Mexico PM Enrique Pena Nieto, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, UK PM Theresa May and Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. There is no change in the Prime Minister’s schedule,” said Baglay.
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said, “As for the arrangement of the bilateral meeting between President Xi and Prime Minister Modi, I have to point out that recently Indian troops trespassed into China and obstructed normal activities of Chinese troops in Doklam region. This endangers China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and has damaged the political foundations of bilateral relations between China and India.”
While China’s public refusal to even acknowledge the possibility of a meeting in Hamburg was seen by New Delhi as a further “hardening” of their position, sources said the two sides have been in touch diplomatically.
Modi, who left Tel Aviv on Thursday afternoon after a three-day visit to Israel, will be attending the BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) leaders’ meet on Friday, where he and Xi are expected to cross paths.
Indian officials said that while no structured bilateral meeting is scheduled so far between the two leaders, there would be “plenty of opportunity” to interact.
The two leaders had last met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Astana on June 9, and struck a positive note. However, much has changed since then due to the stand-off at the tri-junction border between India, China and Bhutan.
Over the last 48 hours in Israel, sources said, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar have been in constant touch with Delhi’s East Asia division over the standoff.
Between meetings with Israeli leaders and officials, the two have briefed Modi on key developments — one such briefing took place on Air India One, on the way to Tel Aviv, sources told The Indian Express.
Indian sources also said that not much premium is being attached to a possible meeting between Modi and Xi since the Chinese side has been unmoved in the past, despite intervention at the highest level.
An official recalled that when Modi had requested Xi to reconsider Beijing’s position on India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group in Tashkent last June, the Chinese leader had not budged. He also recalled that when the two leaders met in Gujarat, on the banks of the Sabarmati, in September 2014, Modi had raised the issue of Chinese incursions, but Xi had been unmoved.
Interestingly, their last meeting in Astana was aimed at defusing the tension over Dalai Lama visiting Arunachal Pradesh in April and India boycotting the Belt and Road Initiative in Beijing in May. That 40-minute session in June was described as “very positive and cordial” by Jaishankar.
The earlier two meetings between Modi and Xi — in Goa in October and in Tashkent in June last year — when the leaders went into specifics did not go well. While Tashkent was a disappointment since Xi did not yield to Modi’s request for NSG membership, Goa witnessed no softening of position on Masood Azhar’s terror listing at the UN.
China and India have been engaged in a standoff in the Doklam area near the Bhutan trijunction for the last 20 days after a Chinese Army construction party arrived in the area to build a road.
Over the last week, there has been continuous ratcheting of rhetoric by the Chinese side, with more than 10 statements on the border stand-off. India had responded by saying that it was “deeply concerned at the recent Chinese actions and has conveyed to the Chinese government that such construction would represent a significant change of status quo with serious security implications for India”.
On Thursday, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson accused India of militarising the border in the Sikkim sector. “I do not understand the basis of this so-called ‘serious security risks’. China is within its own territory, and is the legitimate act of a sovereign state. Over the past decades, India has been building a great number of facilities and deploying a large number of forces in the Sikkim sector. In some areas, they have been building military facilities, including fortifications,” said the spokesperson.
On Wednesday, in a YouTube video uploaded by the Chinese Embassy in India, Li Ya, political counsellor, said India must pull back all forces unconditionally and immediately for any meaningful dialogue between China and India. “As to Indian security concerns, India crossed a delimited boundary into another country’s territory in the name of security concerns. No matter what kind of activities it conducts there… (it) will not be acceptable to any sovereign state,” he said in the video.
Doka La is the Indian name for the region which Bhutan recognises as Doklam, while China claims it as part of its Donglang region. China and Bhutan are engaged in talks over the resolution of the area. Bhutan, however, has no diplomatic ties with China and is supported militarily and diplomatically by India.
Meanwhile, after virtually calling for war in an editorial comment recently, state-run Chinese daily Global Times in an article titled, ‘China can rethink stance on Sikkim, Bhutan’, indicated that Beijing could consider fomenting “anti-India movements” in Sikkim and Bhutan.
“…If Beijing adjusts its stance on India-sensitive issues, it could be a powerful card to deal with New Delhi. With certain conditions, Bhutan and Sikkim will see strong anti-India movements, which will negatively affect India’s already turbulent northeast area and rewrite southern Himalayan geopolitics,” stated the article published Thursday.