Event ReportsPublished on Oct 28, 2019
The informal nature of the summit — namely the absence of pressure involved in putting out a joint statement, among other aspects — helps create an environment for better understanding of each other’s concerns.
Modi-Xi Summit: More than ‘optics’ at Mahabalipuram

“The (Narendra) Modi-Xi (Jinping) informal summit at Mahabalipuram delivered, at this point in time, more for India-China relations than perhaps a state visit would have,” remarked former Secretary (West) in the Ministry of External Affairs, M. Ganapathi.

Initiating a discussion on the ‘Wuhan Spirit to Chennai Connect’, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi described it, at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai, on 12 October 2019, Ganapathi said that though the concept of an ‘informal summit’ of the kind has entered people’s consciousness only since the Wuhan Summit between the two leaders in 2017, they have always been part of the diplomatic lexicon along with state visits, official visits and so on.

The success of the informal summit was that it allowed for discussions on several topics as wide-ranging as greater interaction between the militaries of the two countries to climate change, said Ganapathi. Informal visits serve their own purpose, “without the trappings of a state visit, away from the glare of publicity, when political leaders are able to discuss a range of issues in a relaxed manner,” he said. The speaker further pointed out that the informal nature of the visit, namely the absence of pressure involved in putting out a joint statement, among other aspects, helps create an environment for better understanding of each other’s concerns.

High-level trade talks

“Trade was one of the issues that PM Modi discussed with President Xi Jinping, and the take-away seems to be that both countries are looking at resolving this issue and improving trade ties,” said Ganapathi. India and China have agreed to set up a ‘High-level Economic and Trade Dialogue’ mechanism which will address trade-related issues such as trade-deficit and investments. It also aims to build a ‘manufacturing partnership’ between the two countries.

With regards to The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is a proposed free-trade agreement between ASEAN, China, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia and New Zealand, Ganapathi said that the Chinese have taken note of India’s concerns about joining the deal. India’s fears, according to him, were essentially that the deal will flood the domestic market with imports without a concomitant rise in exports. Ganapathi felt that though trade was discussed, it was unlikely that these issues will be resolved before the ASEAN summit due to take place next month.

Likewise, the need for more tourism and people-to-people contact was stressed upon, said Ganapathi. The MEA has said the year 2020 will be designated the ‘Year of Indian-China Cultural and People to People Exchanges’. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale also announced that 70 activities would be planned to celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. People-to-people contact was crucial for building trust and understanding, he said. “It will help remove stereotypes. The public needs to appreciate the developments that have taken place in both countries. Increased tourism will help towards this goal,” he said.

India and China agreed to establish ‘sister state relations’ between Tamil Nadu and Fujian province to explore the ancient cultural and trade links enjoyed by the two states. Gokhale also mentioned the possibility of establishing an academy to study links between Mamallapuram and the Fujian province on the lines of the experience between Ajanta and Dunhuang as well as conducting research on maritime links between China and India. The sister-state relations will help the two states explore the links that they have enjoyed for centuries together. 

Land-locked to land-linked

When asked why the border dispute was not discussed at the summit, Ganapathi explained that when it came to sensitive issues, it was better to be prudent. Reflecting on his long career as a diplomat, he said, “prudence, not public statements, is the key when it comes such issues, because you risk devaluing the entire process. The border dispute is a highly sensitive subject for both countries, the reverberations and ramifications that will result if discussed publicly can set back discussions by many years and has the potential to harden the position of one or the other state.”

Commenting on President Xi’s visit to Nepal following the Mahabalipuram Summit, Ganapathi said it was important not to draw too many comparisons between the two visits, pointing out that President Xi’s visit to Nepal was a formal state visit. Looking at the Joint Statement, however, there were certain interesting points of note, said the veteran diplomat. He listed the elevation of Nepal-China “ever-lasting friendship to strategic partnership,” China’s “firm support to Nepal in upholding the country’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity” as well as its support for Nepal’s “development path independently chosen in the light of Nepal's national conditions.”

Most significant of all, pointed out Ganapathi, was China’s promise to “help Nepal realise its dream of becoming a land-linked country from a land-locked one.” In connection with this, China and Nepal signed a feasibility study agreement for a 70 km rail-link between Kathmandu and Shigatse, which will in turn connect to an existing railway line to Lhasa. Improving road-links was also discussed. “Nepal is perhaps China’s strongest partner in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),” noted Ganapathi.

 “China is moving into South Asia in a big way, not just in Nepal but in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and so on… Other than Bhutan, China’s presence in our neighbourhood is strong. Land-locked to land-linked is an important set forward, but these countries should be careful not to get locked into Chinese bondage. There is a realisation in some of our neighbouring countries that Chinese assistance comes with baggage” pointed out Ganapathi. “We cannot give assistance in the way China can, but our neighbours have always appreciated that Indian assistance has been focused on development, particularly human resource development, whereas China’s focus has been on extractive industry, for instance in Afghanistan the focus is on lithium”, he added.

 “China is a big country and these are all smaller neighbours… the assistance they give will naturally be welcome, India must not look at it as a competition, because in a competition there is always a loser. India must focus on where our strengths lie, and there is ample space for both countries to simultaneously help this neighbourhood,” pointed out Ganapathi. “From the point of view of optics, the Mahabalipuram summit went exceptionally well, the only concern is how do you replicate this in the future,” he concluded.

This report was written by Dr. Vinitha Revi, Research Associate, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai.

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