The standoff between Indian and Chinese militaries continues at Ladakh. India is deploying troops at multiple locations to mirror Chinese deployment. In October 2019, PM Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had held an informal summit in Tamil Nadu’s Mamallapuram, after meeting in Wuhan the previous year in the wake of the 2017 Doklam standoff.
ThePrint asks: Doklam to Galwan: Have Modi-Xi informal summits been more about optics than border peace?
Wuhan and Mamallapuram have not left a lasting positive impact. Modi-Xi must deploy hindsight and foresight
Former Foreign Secretary and Ambassador
Leadership-level summits are always useful, both for the optics and the opportunity they provide for a candid exchange of views in an unfettered manner. But beyond these meetings, the two Asian giants have myriad issues to resolve in the relationship. The India-China boundary question and China’s relations with Pakistan are some of the leading ones. The directions that the leaders give at their summits need painstaking follow-up at various levels of government on both sides. The costs of continuing antagonism and difference have to be carefully weighed. Political will to resolve problems has to be clearly signalled so that risky adventurism is kept under leash.
Obviously, Wuhan and Mamallapuram, while helping to defuse tensions, have not left a lasting positive impact. The atmosphere and situation continues to be fragile. Hindsight (learning from history) and foresight (assessing the cost of protracted contest and hostility for the future of both India and China as well as the world) have to be deployed by both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The Chinese must be persuaded that peace and tranquillity in the border areas will continue to be disturbed in the absence of a mutually defined and understood Line of Actual Control, which exists without prejudice to the claims of both sides. The current reality, where transgressions mount by the year, is risky and dangerous. A single shot fired here will reverberate with enormous negative repercussions for the relationship.
Modi-Xi summits can’t be seen through narrow prism of border peace. Face-offs happen where view of LAC differs
Lt Gen. (Retd) S.L. Narasimhan
Member, National Security Advisory Board, and Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies
The Modi-Xi informal summits should not be seen through the narrow prism of optics or border peace. They have their place in bringing stability to the overall bilateral relationship between India and China. Some improvements have taken place — such as training of Afghan diplomats both by India and China — as a result of the first informal summit. The face-offs reduced, post the Wuhan Summit. Some adjustments, though a few, also took place in the bilateral trade.
It will not be fair to expect that the complex boundary question will get resolved with a couple of such meetings. It will also be incorrect to view the ongoing face-off in eastern Ladakh in the context of informal summits. These face-offs are bound to happen in areas where the perception of the LAC differs.
Other than high-level interactions, there are sufficient mechanisms existing to resolve such issues. Hopefully, the current stand-off will also get resolved through them. The personal relationship displayed by the leaders in such informal meetings also sends positive messages down the hierarchy, thus facilitating a better bilateral relationship.
India and China continue to diverge on what constitutes ‘status quo’. So, transgressions, face-offs will happen
Professor, School of International Studies, JNU
The question to be asked is not whether informal summits are more about optics – which they are in one sense – but they also serve a vital purpose in building an understanding at the highest levels. The question is whether the informal summits are being assumed to be a panacea for the stress and tension in India and China ties due to a problem that lies elsewhere – a disputed boundary. Informal summits, by themselves, do not, and cannot, resolve the disputed boundary issue, and thus lead to peace.
The difficulty in preventing the transgressions is compounded when it involves strategically vital areas, such as Doklam and now Galwan — where there are check posts or bases and supporting infrastructure, which has to be upgraded or strengthened. Here we come up against the vexed issue of how troop presence and activities by either side infringe on the understanding of the ‘status quo’ to which both sides have agreed. There continues to be a divergence on data, inferences, arguments – and basic facts – as Nehru told Parliament in April 1960. For all extents and purposes, there is still no meeting ground. Border transgressions, face-offs, and in the rare case, even some low-level violence, have, and will continue to occur.
China has used its military and infrastructure superiority to deter India from any anti-Beijing posturing. Wuhan spirit has evaporated
Maj Gen. Ashok Kumar Mehta (Retd)
Wuhan summit was the result of the most tense and hostile 73-day standoff between China and India — after the Sumdorong Chu face-off in 1986 — at Doklam, in a third country, Bhutan, where the Chinese PLA attempted to provide India with a fait accompli. India’s strong resistance to the PLA’s coercive action signalled to Beijing that it could not bulldoze its way to achieve military ends.
Defusion of Doklam was also necessary for China to hold the annual BRICS summit. The Wuhan summit became vital to re-invigorate border protocols maintaining peace and tranquillity. At Wuhan, Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi issued strategic guidance to their militaries to ensure there was no repeat of Doklam. While Wuhan had substance, Mamallapuram was more optics.
The Covid-19 crisis has changed the context. India’s growing proximity to China, the US-China Cold War following Beijing’s reputational loss at being seen as the source of the pandemic and the US condemnation of China’s aggression in Ladakh and Sikkim – for all these reasons and more, China has used its military and infrastructure superiority to demonstrate its capacity to create pressure points along the LAC.
These are meant to deter India from any anti-China posturing, regionally and internationally. The gloves are off and the Wuhan spirit has evaporated.
India and China have a complicated relationship so border peace will take time. Until then, informal summits must continue
Diplomacy Editor, ThePrint
The informal summits have surely led to a better understanding of where India and China stand in terms of their respective vision and position in the larger world order. Although they are called “informal” just to make them sound more exciting, they are high-level dialogues nevertheless, with all the characteristics of a formal dialogue.
The first informal summit took place in Wuhan after the Doklam standoff was mitigated and the next informal summit took place in Chennai last year. We saw the immediate cooperation between India and China in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak — sending medical supplies and protective kits to and repatriating Indian students from Wuhan at a time when the crisis was at its peak.
Having said that, it is also true that the informal summits need to have some tangible outcome when it comes to the military aspect of the relationship by way of greater understanding at the troops’ level. We need to realise that the LAC is not yet officially defined and hence a Galwan-type incident can take place anytime during this time of the year when there is no snow at those heights.
Doklam was different because a third country – Bhutan – was involved. India and China have a complicated relationship so it will take time to achieve peace at the border. Until then, such high-level dialogue mechanisms, be it in the form of informal summits or special representative talks, must continue because they are always useful in terms of deterrence.
By Pia Krishnankutty, journalist at ThePrint