On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping met for the 14th time in four years. Is that an unusual frequency in leadership level meetings between the two nations?
The traditional bureaucratic equivalence between Indian Prime Ministers and Chinese Premiers has changed in recent years as the Indian Prime Minister has engaged with the Chinese President — a reflection of the power dynamic that places both leaders at the executive head of their governments.
Prime Minister Modi and President Xi have not missed any major multilateral summit in the last four years — the G20, East Asia and ASEAN Summits, BRICS, and now the SCO. Whenever they have been in the same room, they have agreed to meet on the sidelines of the summit. One crucial meeting was a very brief encounter at last year’s G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, where the two leaders broke the ice on Doklam and asked officials to talk and resolve the crisis.
The fluid global situation, especially the unpredictability of the Donald Trump administration, has probably nudged the two leaders into greater and more frequent engagement than they might have pursued ordinarily.
It is also important to note that the two countries have increasingly had close encounters and conflicting interests in many parts of the world, and across issues — and they realise the importance of constant dialogue at a high level. Modi has demonstrated a clear individual style of engagement, and world leaders have responded positively to his initiative. Both Modi and Xi see themselves as strong leaders of their countries and peoples, and their personal engagement is a crucial aspect of the bilateral engagement on all outstanding issues.
In Wuhan in April, Modi and Xi gave strategic guidance to their armies to build trust. In Qingdao, they decided to strengthen their communication. How should this be read?
The two-and-half month-long border standoff last year at the India-Bhutan-China trijunction at Doklam underlined the need to have stronger communication channels between the two militaries. While the incident was resolved through diplomacy, later analyses on both sides concluded that a more robust communication between the militaries could have helped avoid escalation. South Block had drawn a similar conclusion after the Chumar faceoff in September 2014, when President Xi was visiting.
At Wuhan, the two sides agreed to give “strategic guidance” to their militaries asking them to follow SOPs, and not escalate matters. The SoPs are outlined in several documents, including the 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement signed by the Manmohan Singh government.
Following the strategic guidance, the two sides were keen to have stronger communication through phonecalls, meetings, visits by Defence Ministers and officials — and to work on ways to enhance trust and build confidence.
Also, Xi is now the numero uno leader in the communist party, China’s government, and the country, and has greater control over the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) than ever before. His position is comparable only to Chairman Mao Zedong’s, and “strategic guidance” from his office carries a lot of weight.
With India in its election year and China focussed on the US and on its eastern borders, both sides appear keen to avoid incidents that divert resources, attention and energy to the Line of Actual Control. Wuhan and Qingdao can be seen as an attempt to keep the LAC quiet in the short-term.
So has the possibility of border skirmishes been reduced?
Officials have maintained that the discussions in Qingdao were underpinned by the “Wuhan spirit”, indicating greater understanding between the two leaders.
Since the Chinese President appears to be in control of the PLA — he has, in recent months, asked senior PLA officers to be loyal and obedient to the Communist Party of China (CPC) and, in the last five years, the Central Military Commission (CMC) has strived to build an army that upholds the CPC’s absolute leadership over the PLA — there is an expectation that his orders will be followed.
Some analysts believe that Chumar and Doklam were done by local-level field commanders, and did not have sanction from Beijing. Those in the establishment who agree with this analysis feel that an understanding between the top leaders would mean less turbulent times on the border. But many Indian analysts also quote Deng Xiaoping’s famous line, “Hide your capacities and bide your time”, and advocate caution.
What is the significance of the hydrological data sharing pact with China?
After the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in April last year, Beijing had warned of adverse consequences for China’s relationship with India. From May 15 onwards, the data sharing agreement between India and China on the Brahmaputra stood frozen. The Indian side raised the issue several times, even during the Doklam standoff, but there was no thaw in the freeze on information-sharing.
This data is crucial to prevent flooding in the Northeast. The pact will hopefully enable stricter adherence to the protocol of sharing information. As the lower riparian country, India (along with Bangladesh), stands to gain significantly from a more robust data-sharing mechanism.
In the bigger picture, what do summits like Qingdao and Wuhan mean?
Wuhan marked the “reset” of the Sino-Indian relationship — it was preceded by the government’s diktat to officials to not attend the Dalai Lama’s events — and there is satisfaction in South Block that the understandings reached in April have been followed through.
So far, the attempt to put the relationship on an even keel has been successful. There have been meetings at all levels — from NSA to Foreign Minister and Foreign Secretary — and the momentum is expected to pick up. Many in the establishment feel that 2017 was either a “wasted” or a “missed” opportunity, and 2018 is the year of the reset, and of trying to bring the relationship back on track. A slew of visits, meetings and interactions will take place through the year, and will continue into the next year — if all goes well on the border, or any other issue does not derail the process.
For Xi to come to India for an informal summit in 2019 is a new and smart way to institutionalise an “annual summit” between the top leaders of the two countries. At present, India has annual summits only with two countries — Japan and Russia. The India-China informal annual summit, if institutionalised, will be the first with a neighbour, and is pregnant with opportunities. It could be expected to strengthen “strategic communication” between the countries, irrespective of the political party in power. The risk for Modi is that a speedbump of any kind — another border skirmish, an escalation of differences over Belt and Road, or something to do with Pakistan — may be politically damaging in an election year.