Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping are meeting in the ancient coastal town of Mamallapuram or Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, some 50 kilometres south of Chenna, for a second Informal Summit on October 11-12. The two countries convened their first Informal Summit in central China’s Wuhan in April 2018, where they exchanged views on issues of global and bilateral significance.
Modi, Xi Informal Summit
Informal Summits act as supplementary exchanges to annual Summits and other formal exchanges such as the G20 Summit, EU-India Summit and the BRICS Summit among others, and allow for “direct, free and candid exchange of views” between countries, something that may not be possible to do through formal bilateral and multilateral meetings that are agenda driven, where specific issues are discussed, and outcomes are more concretely defined.
Informal Summits may not take place on a fixed annual or biennial schedule; they are impromptu in the sense that they take place when a need for them is perceived by the concerned nations. For instance, the intergovernmental organisation ASEAN held four Informal Summits in the years 1996, 1997, 1999, and 2000. And in November 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the ASEAN-India Informal Breakfast Summit in Singapore.
Since Informal Summits allow discussion on wide-ranging issues, they are not particularly purpose-specific, and are sometimes considered to play bigger roles in diplomatic dialogue than formal exchanges — the reason is that they tend to be more in-depth, and relatively flexible in intent and the scope of discussion.
For instance, in Wuhan, Prime Minister Modi and President Xi discussed a range of subjects, including the India-China boundary question, bilateral trade and investment, terrorism, economic development and global peace, and reached a “broad consensus”.
China is not the only country with which India has had an Informal Summit. In May 2018, Modi met Russia’s President Vladimir Putin for their first Informal Summit in Russia’s Sochi to discuss international matters in a “broad and long-term perspective”.
The two leaders discussed their countries’ responsibilities towards maintaining global peace and stability, military and nuclear energy cooperation, and the movement towards an equitable world order.
In June 2019, on the sidelines of the G20 Summit, Russia, India and China convened together for the “Russia-India-China (RIC) Informal Summit” where they discussed issues related to the economic, security and political situation of the world.
What happened in the Wuhan Informal Summit?
At the first Informal Summit between India and China held in Wuhan on April 27-18, 2018, Modi and Xi met “to exchange views on overarching issues of bilateral and global importance, and to elaborate their respective visions and priorities for national development in the context of the current and future international situation”.
Days before the summit, Wang Yi, State Councillor and Minister of Foreign Affairs of China, had said that the then upcoming meeting should be taken as an opportunity to “push forward the realisation of better and faster development of bilateral relations at a new starting point”.
The Wuhan Summit achieved a “re-set” of the Sino-Indian relationship after the two-month long border standoff at the India-China-Bhutan trijunction in Doklam. Significantly, at Wuhan, the two leaders decided to give “strategic guidance” to their military, so that issues did not escalate as in the case of the Doklam standoff.
Experts and analysts agreed at the time that it was a good idea to make Summits such as Wuhan a regular feature of diplomatic exchanges between the two countries. The “institutionalisation” of such Summits would help in strengthening the “strategic communication” between the countries, irrespective of the political party in power.
Japan and Russia are the only two countries with which India has annual Summits at present.
A press release issued by the Chinese Embassy in India after the Wuhan Summit stated that China and India should be “good neighbours and good friends”. It also emphasised the need to carry out “in-depth practical cooperation” and promote people and cultural exchanges “in a more mature manner”.
Other recent India-China meetings
Prime Minister Modi and President Xi have met repeatedly over the last few years — their meeting at the SCO Summit in Bishkek on June 13, 2019 was, in fact, their fifteenth meeting since Modi first came to power in 2014.
The Bishkek meeting was preceded by one in Qingdao on June 9, 2018, where India and China signed two bilateral agreements, enabling China to release hydrological data to India, which are crucial to preventing flooding in the Northeast. The meeting in Qingdao carried the “Wuhan Spirit”, an indication of greater understanding between the two nations.
The Qindao meeting was followed in November 2018 by the 21st Round of Special Representatives Talks in China’s Chengdu. The meeting was attended by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and State Councillor and Minister of Foreign Affairs of China, Wang Yi, where they emphasised the importance of strengthening the “Closer Developmental Partnership” between India and China.
Don’t miss from Explained: Going back 1300 years, the story of Mahabalipuram’s China connection