Eight months after the Doklam crisis was resolved, India Saturday said Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping issued “strategic guidance” to their militaries to strengthen communication, build trust and mutual understanding and “enhance predictability” and “effectiveness” in managing border affairs.
New Delhi said that both sides have the “maturity and wisdom” to handle differences through “peaceful discussion”, while keeping in mind the importance of “respecting each other’s sensitivities, concerns and aspirations”.
The two leaders also directed their militaries to “earnestly” implement various confidence building measures, including the “principle of mutual and equal security”. The announcement came Saturday after 10 hours of talks between Modi and Xi, in six meetings — four of them one-on-one and accompanied only by interpreters – at their first “informal summit”.
A top source, privy to the conversations between the two leaders, told The Indian Express: “Xi is now the supreme leader, especially after the Constitutional amendment. We expect the army to listen to him.” He was referring to situations in Chumar in 2014 and Doklam in 2017.
Sources pointed out to one of Xi’s early speeches in May 2014 when he had outlined his concept of “New Asian Security Concept For New Progress in Security Cooperation” at the Shanghai Expo Centre. “Security must be equal. No country should attempt to dominate regional security affairs or infringe upon the legitimate rights and interests of other countries,” Xi had said on May 21, 2014.
New Delhi, which congratulated him on his being re-elected as the country’s supreme leader, has conveyed that India’s security interests fit in with Xi’s thoughts on security.
However, the Chinese government’s statement was silent on the issue of “strategic guidance to the military” – a phrase used mostly by Pentagon – and said that the two militaries will “strengthen confidence-building measures” and enhance communication and cooperation to uphold border peace and tranquility.
The focus on border issues between the two countries comes after ties were hit in 2017 starting with the visit of the Dalai Lama to Arunachal Pradesh, which China protested. Then, for more than than two-and-a-half months starting mid-June last year, Indian and Chinese troops faced off in Doklam.
In a briefing after the informal summit, Foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale said the two leaders issued “strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs”.
“The two leaders further directed their militaries to earnestly implement various confidence building measures agreed upon between the two sides, including the principle of mutual and equal security, and strengthen existing institutional arrangements and information sharing mechanisms to prevent incidents in border regions,” said a statement by the Ministry of External Affairs.
As the two sides tackled the contentious border dispute, both leaders expressed their support for the work of the Special Representatives on the India China Boundary Question and urged them to intensify their efforts to seek a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable settlement, the statement said, adhering to the standard formulation.
“The two leaders underscored the importance of maintaining peace and tranquility in all areas of the India-China border region in the larger interest of the overall development of bilateral relations”, the statement said. The use of the phrase “all areas of the India-China border region”, instead of the boiler-plate term “on the India-China border” is significant, as it means that Doklam is very much part of India’s concerns.
However, unlike May 2015 during Modi’s visit to China, when the “early settlement” of the border dispute was classified as a “strategic objective”, the emphasis now was more on managing the border – than resolving it.
“I think it is fairly clear that both sides feel that time is on their side, as both are involved in border negotiations. So, till that time, the effort is to keep the border peaceful, and with minimum incidents,” a source said.
Besides the border, both sides agreed to open a new area of cooperation – Afghanistan – where, sources said, India and China will work on a “joint economic project”. “Now, that the leaders have agreed to do the project, it will be left to the officials identify a project,” a source said.
This will have a huge significance on Pakistan’s equation with China since Islamabad and Rawalpindi are quite wary of India’s activities in Afghanistan. “This is an important move… though it had been in the works for a while, now that Xi and Modi have agreed, it should get a fillip,” the source said.
While such a joint project will amount to India joining the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) in practice, an Indian government source said that India’s position remains “unchanged”. India has so far boycotted the BRI, Xi’s pet project, on account of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. However, it shows India’s willingness to overcome differences with China and work on a project in a third country.
Asked about India’s specific requests on issues like Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar’s designation as a global terrorist at the UN, Gokhale, only pointed out to the paragraph on terrorism in the Indian statement. “Xi and Modi also recognised the common threat posed by terrorism and reiterated their strong condemnation of and resolute opposition to terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. They committed themselves to cooperate on counter-terrorism”, the statement said. The Chinese statement, however, just had a passing mention on terrorism, with no specific assurance.
When pressed on China’s position on India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, Gokhale said the leaders felt that both sides have the “maturity and wisdom” to handle differences through “peaceful discussion” within the context of the overall relationship, keeping in mind the importance of “respecting each other’s sensitivities, concerns and aspirations”.
The Chinese side, which also issued a statement, included a similar line, without the use of the word “sensitivities”. “Both sides have the maturity and wisdom to handle their differences through peaceful discussion and by respecting each other’s concerns and aspirations,” the statement by China said.
China’s Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou told reporters that both sides agreed to enhance military and security communications. He also said both agreed to take forward economic cooperation, and China did not think it was important whether India accepted the Belt and Road infrastructure project and China “won’t force it to”, underlining the approach of shelving disputes while taking forward ties.
On the second day of the informal summit in Wuhan, Modi and Xi went for a walk by the East Lake and a boat ride, before concluding the visit with a luncheon meeting. They also had a private tea-tasting ceremony.
Officials said that the trade deficit is a major concern since India wants to enter the Chinese market in pharmaceuticals and agricultural products, but there have been major non-tariff barriers. “We hope the apex level commitment will yield some results,” a source said.
According to Gokhale, they agreed on the need to “strengthen strategic communication through greater consultation on all matters of common interest” – indicating more informal summits. They believe that such strategic communication will have a positive influence on enhancing mutual understanding and will contribute to regional and global stability, he said.
Takeaways from the informal summit
Strategic guidance to their militaries to build trust and effectively manage border affairs
Intensify efforts to seek a fair, and mutually acceptable settlement on borders
Armed forces of both countries to implement confidence building measure to prevent incidents in border regions.
Push forward bilateral trade and investment
Strengthen strategic communication on matters of common interest
Cooperate on counter-terrorism
Agreed on the utility of holding similar informal summits in the future.
Strengthen partnership in pursuit of national modernisation and greater prosperity for both countries