The informal summit of leaders is meant to discuss overarching strategic issues, but given the format, both sides will put all issues bothering them.
On Tuesday October 8, Chinese official spokesman Geng Shuang declared that the Chinese position on Kashmir was clear and consistent: “We call upon India and Pakistan to step up dialogue on disputes including the Kashmir issue to enhance mutual trust and improve relations.”
This statement could have removed the logjam that was threatening to derail the Modi – Xi informal summit even before it began. But soon it was clear that no matter what the Chinese had to say to ensure that the summit went ahead, their position on Kashmir is not likely to change.
This was evident on the very next day, on October 9, the Pakistan-China joint press release following the visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan generated fresh controversy when it noted “the Chinese side… reiterated that the Kashmir issue is a dispute left from history, and should be properly and peacefully resolved based on the UN Charter, relevant UN Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements. China opposes any unilateral actions to complicate the situation.” Earlier in the document, the two sides “reaffirmed their support on issues concerning each other’s core interests.”
This is no momentary lapse on Beijing’s part. Recall, earlier on August 16, China surprised the international community by reviving the “India-Pakistan Question”, one of the oldest issues before the UN Security Council (UNSC). In the books of the UNSC since India complained about Pakistani aggression in Kashmir and found itself outmaneuvered by UK which succeeded in turning it into the “India-Pakistan Question”, the issue had been a prominent one in the 1950s and 1960s but lay dormant since December 21, 1971 when, following Pakistan’s defeat in the Bangladesh war, Islamabad agreed to resolve India-Pakistan issues through bilateral processes.
However, nothing came out of the August 2019 discussion since none of the other members of the UNSC agreed to make its discussions public. Even so, it was diplomatically a major development, which Beijing felt compelled to make following India’s move to downgrade Kashmir’s status as a state of the Indian Union and remove its commitment to give the state a special status.
The two sides managed to dodge another bullet when China simply denied that India had conducted any military exercise in Arunachal Pradesh on the eve of the Chennai summit beginning October 3. It all began with source based reports claiming that China had expressed concern over India’s Him Vijay Exercise. Reading between the lines of the report it is apparent that there was a bit of psyops taking place when “sources” again clarified that the “exercise” in question was really a “familiarisation and acclimatisation” process for the new 17 Mountain Strike Corps that had been recently raised, and that it was not linked to the Xi visit.
The vice-minister in question is the previous ambassador of the China to India, Luo Zhaohui. He did however confirm that in the past year, as a result of the Wuhan informal summit, “the border areas had maintained peace and tranquility.”
So the Chinese vice foreign minister simply side-stepped the question in relation to the exercise and said that “as far as we know, the so-called military exercise is not a fact, it is not true.” The vice-minister in question is the previous ambassador of the China to India, Luo Zhaohui. He did however confirm that in the past year, as a result of the Wuhan informal summit, “the border areas had maintained peace and tranquility.”
The Chinese played there own psyop by having Imran Khan to visit China on October 8-9, days before the Chennai summit. Khan was given the full treatment—ceremonial welcome by Prime Minister Li Keqiang, a protocol-breaking banquet lunch hosted by President Xi. Reports suggested a focus on bilateral cooperation through the CPEC as well as strategic coordination vis-à-vis India. There is little doubt that this third visit by Imran to China in little over a year was aimed at obtaining reassurance from the Chinese that the Wuhan process would in no way undermine Sino-Pakistan interests. So it was not surprising that Xinhua report on the visit had a highly nuanced section on Kashmir saying that Khan had briefed Xi on Pakistan’s views on the Kashmir situation, while Xi told him that China was playing close attention to the situation. It cited Xi telling Khan that “China supports Pakistan to safeguard its own legitimate rights and hopes that the relevant parties can solve their disputes through peaceful dialogues.”
Neither side is likely to place too much emphasis on that part of the Wuhan process anymore. In its time in April 2018, it was billed as a “game changer” and a “reset” of a relationship that had deteriorated since Modi took charge as Prime Minister a second time. Besides playing the Tibet card, the Indian side had taken to publicly hectoring Beijing on its refusal to designate Masood Azhar as a terrorist under the UN’s 1267 Committee, and denying India a place in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. All this was topped up by the dangerous stand off in Doklam.
India signaled that it was willing to stop playing the Tibet card. This year, in the midst of the General Election campaign, China decided to lift its hold on Azhar’s designation. Both sides also accommodated each other on the economic front
It was felt that the two sides needed to step up their “strategic communications”—high level exchanges to build mutual trust. To this end, the Wuhan informal summit was mooted. As part of its preparations, India signaled that it was willing to stop playing the Tibet card. This year, in the midst of the General Election campaign, China decided to lift its hold on Azhar’s designation. Both sides also accommodated each other on the economic front with Beijing agreeing to lift its restrictions on Indian sugar and non-Basmati rice imports. Nevertheless, this has hardly dented the Indian trade deficit, and as of now, Beijing continues to be wary of making significant investments in India, even while New Delhi, too, does not quite put out the red carpet for Chinese investors.
However, the Wuhan process does not seem to have lived up to its promise, neither on the economic side, nor the political. The reason for this could well be systemic. We are living in a period when old alliances and connections are fraying and states are seeking to see if they can advance their own cause. Then, is it possible to have geopolitical divergence and economic convergence?
Recall again, that this year at the margins of the UNGA, India agreed to upgrade the level of its participation in the Quadrilateral Grouping (or Quad) to the ministerial level. Note, that three members of the Quad are military allies and the grouping’s essential aim is to contain China.
Officially, the informal summit of leaders is meant to discuss overarching strategic issues, regional and global problems. But given the format, both sides will put all issues, big and small, that are bothering them on the table along with their respective wish lists. These could range from China’s efforts to get India not to join the emerging US-led technology embargo on China to India seeking guarantees that China will not flood the Indian market in the event it signs up to the RCEP. Or India’s desire for China to stop aiding and abetting Pakistan’s Kashmir obsession.
New Delhi has recently agreed to allow Huawei to demonstrate its technology at the India Mobile Congress, but it is still some way from guaranteeing that the Chinese giant will be able to participate in the full-fledged trials in 2020.
There could also be forward movement on the border, primarily to address the issue of overlapping claims on the Line of Actual Control
If things go well, there could be some forward movement in third-country projects, such as the one the two countries announced for Afghanistan in Wuhan. Though the Afghan project turned out to be merely related to diplomat’s training, there are expectations of faster movement in the BCIM Project. Note that the earlier name, “BCIM Corridor”, has not been changed to “BCIM Project” so as to take it out of the BRI ambit since India is not supportive of the BRI’s objectives.
There could also be forward movement on the border, primarily to address the issue of overlapping claims on the Line of Actual Control. The 14-odd points where claims overlap are a source of tension, and Prime Minister Modi had suggested to the Chinese side during his visit in 2015 that the two sides clarify these as per the provisions of the 1993 Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA). At the time the Chinese demurred because they believed that this could lead to them losing traction over the use of LAC to stoke Sino-Indian tensions. But there are indications that things may have changed. If so, this could be formalised in a meeting of the Special Representatives of the two sides—NSA Ajit Doval and State Councilor Wang Yi. They were supposed to have met in Delhi earlier in September, but angered by the Chinese attitude on Kashmir, India called off the meeting.
Summit meetings are fine as they go, whether formal or informal. But they require considerable preparation. In the realm of inter-state relations, a casual approach can get you into trouble. Depending on “personal chemistry” is one thing, but ensuring that the ingredients for the bonding are mixed in the right proportions quite another. When officials fail, there is always the higher ministerial level, and when ministers fail, there is the apex PM/President level that can sort out issues. But if it begins to appear that even the apex level interactions are not delivering the goods, then you have no other remedy. Fortunately, this time around, expectations are not too high, and so, the bar for a successful summit will not be placed on a pedestal.
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Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...Read More +