New Delhi: If anything, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping will find it difficult to invoke the so-called ‘Wuhan spirit’ — that seemed to have given direction to the relationship between both countries post the Doklam standoff — when they meet in Tamil Nadu on 11-12 October.
A lot has changed between the two sides since the first round of the informal summit took place in Wuhan, China, last April. For one, the second round that is taking place at Mamallapuram, to the south of Chennai, will address a lot of new issues that have cropped up between the two sides while the old ones continue to fester.
For instance, if the first round of informal summit discussed issues of boundary settlement, bilateral trade and investment and combating terrorism, then the second round will be all those plus the scrapping of Article 370 and continuing lockdown in Kashmir, India’s upgradation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad and rollout of the 5G network.
According to official sources, both leaders will be discussing all issues of bilateral importance ranging from boundary settlement to bilateral trade.
Sources, however, said the Chinese side will also be taking up the issue of Jammu and Kashmir and how India plans to redraw the boundaries, something that New Delhi also plans to clearly lay on the table.
Last month, at the UNGA meeting, China’s state councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi had said in his address that “no actions that would unilaterally change the status quo (of Jammu and Kashmir) should be taken”.
It irked India, which retorted that Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh remain integral parts of India. Ever since India scrapped the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated it into two union territories by doing away with Article 370 and 35A, the government is finding it increasingly difficult to sort out issues with China, its largest neighbour.
“A lot has changed from Wuhan to now. So I am really not sure if the Wuhan format can take place and whether the spirit remains,” said Manoj Joshi, Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.
“A whole new set of challenges have emerged in the last year since Wuhan. So really the challenge now is to bring the relationship back on track and discuss the real issues.”
The Kashmir conundrum
China, an all-weather friend of Pakistan, has even taken the preemptive step to externalise the issue of Kashmir by taking it to the high table of the UN Security Council. Due to Beijing’s push, the issue was taken up at a closed-door meeting of the UNSC in August.
Tensions between both sides also soared when, on 6 August, a day after India scrapped Article 370, Home Minister Amit Shah stated on the floor of Parliament that India will also claim the entire Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), including Aksai Chin.
As a result, the 22nd round of talks between special representatives, or SRs, of both countries on boundary talks got postponed as Wang, who is also the Chinese SR, delayed his visit to India. India’s SR for the border talks is National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.
The last round of SR talks took place in November last year in Chengdu in Southwest China. While Wang postponed his visit to India, he did visit Pakistan where he held talks with the entire political as well as the military leadership there.
“The key change since the April 2018 Wuhan summit has been India’s decision to revoke Article 370 and strengthen sovereign authority over Jammu and Kashmir,” said Zorawar Daulet Singh, fellow, Centre for Policy Research.
“China’s initial reaction was unusually partisan in favour of Pakistan. India would hope that position reverts to some sort of neutrality. Kashmir would, if at all, find a passing reference in the Modi Xi talks since non-interference in domestic affairs is a norm that China values.”
Singh, also the author of Power and Diplomacy: India’s Foreign Policies During the Cold War, added that Wuhan was crucial in laying out a top-level commitment to “manage the relationship in a mature fashion that maintains peace on the disputed frontier and enables both sides to build on their convergences, particularly economic cooperation”.
“More broadly, both sides also recognise that they are a factor for stability in an uncertain world and have a growing responsibility in ensuring a stable neighbourhood,” Singh highlighted.
Temperatures between both sides also peaked after military forces on either side had a face-off near the northern bank of the Pangong Lake in Ladakh, proposed to become a Union Territory soon.
China is also upset by the fact that the Indian Army is conducting its biggest mountain combat exercise ‘Him Vijay’ in Arunachal Pradesh, a state in which both share the border or Line of Actual Control (LAC).
“I think all the indications are that this informal summit will only be an exercise in futility. It’s difficult to say that the last one achieved anything sustainable,” said China expert Jabin T. Jacob, associate professor, department of international relations and governance studies at Shiv Nadar University.
“Such closed-door exercises are fundamentally undemocratic — might be alright in China but speaks poorly of Indian diplomacy and the values it is supposed to uphold.”
RCEP, trade only silver lining
Recently, during one of his many addresses to a Washington-based think-tank, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said India is now looking at opening up its markets under the mega trade pact Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by the end of this year.
RCEP is being negotiated between the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and their trading partners China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
He also said that the relationship between India and China is “stable and mature”.
“China’s influence has grown over many years is also a fact of life. We have our issues, we know that. But today it is a stable relationship. It is a very mature relationship. It is not a relationship that has given cause of anxiety to the world for many many years,” Jaishankar said at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Besides, China is now keenly looking at India to consider telecom giant Huawei Technologies for rolling out its 5G mobile telephony network.
Beijing recently also gave its nod to publicly procuring generic medicines from India’s Dr Reddy’s Laboratories Ltd that will help in addressing the ballooning trade deficit between both countries.