October 11, 2019 12:45:57 am
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosts China’s President Xi Jinping at Mamallapuram on the outskirts of Chennai for a second informal summit between the two leaders, it is bound to be different from the first such engagement last year in Wuhan, Central China. For one, the sea-side pow-wow in Mamallapuram will be somewhat shorter than the lake side chat in Wuhan. President Xi Jinping will be in Mamallapuram for barely 24 hours. It is no secret that President Xi has reasons to be preoccupied, thanks to the violent turn in the persistent protests in Hong Kong, the escalating trade war with the United States, and its negative impact on the Chinese economy. More broadly, the halo of inevitability around China’s rise has begun to fade a bit. If Modi went to Wuhan with an eye on the impending polls last year, he is stronger at home today having returned with a bigger majority. But Modi has problems too. He is struggling to put India back on a high growth path. His bold move on Kashmir has generated considerable international concern. While his diplomacy has managed to put a lid on it for now, Delhi is not yet out of the woods.
Both leaders, then, need to put aside some of the triumphalism that has enveloped the national sentiment in both countries, and look at stabilising bilateral ties at a moment of great political churn in the international system. If the political “spin” about the “Wuhan spirit” far exceeded the results of the first informal summit, the two sides must resist the temptation to hype up the outcomes at Mamallapuram. Instead, they ought to recognise that the problems between the two nations have gotten messier since Wuhan. None of the big issues from the perspective of Delhi — the large trade deficit in favour of China and the consequences of Beijing’s deepening alliance with Islamabad — have eased. Meanwhile, the widening power gap between the two nations tilts the balance of power on the disputed boundary and in the region against India. Delhi’s efforts to compensate for this imbalance through closer ties with the US, Japan and Australia rile Beijing.
When you find yourself in a hole, as the saying goes, stop digging. Modi and Xi need to reassure each other that they will not allow the relationship to slide further. Second, the two leaders must find ways to advance the dialogue on the boundary dispute. The confidence-building framework agreed at Wuhan to keep peace on the border — after the confrontation in Doklam during the summer of 2017 — must now be followed by an early harvest of practical steps on boundary settlement. Third is to explore avenues for mutually beneficial commercial cooperation. The multiple problems between India and China can’t be fixed in a day at Mamallapuram. But small and pragmatic steps can restore a measure of trust between the two governments and carve out a path towards stability that both need so badly at this complex global conjuncture.
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