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Informal Way Forward

A relaxed, candid meeting between the leaders of China and India has gone some way toward repairing the fractured bilateral relationship, but more dialogue will be necessary to fix the trust deficit

By NewsChina Updated Jun.5

They talked about their ancient civilizations and cultural exchanges at the museum where they saw ancient artifacts. They briefed each other on their own domestic development and reform agendas at a banquet. As they strolled around a lake, they discussed how to protect the environment at the same time as speed up economic growth. The mood during the two-day meeting was easy and friendly, and the exchanges were candid. They held longer, more in-depth dialogue than ever, which has consolidated their friendship and mutual trust.  

This was what Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did during their first informal meeting in Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province in Central China, on April 27 and 28, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou told media after the meeting. 

Only a year before, a military standoff along a border on the roof of the world almost brought the two Asian giants to the brink of military conflict. Entangled geopolitical interests involving third countries, particularly the US, made things more complicated. 

Kong described the summit, though informal, as “a new significant milestone for bilateral ties.” The two leaders reached “extensive consensus” on international political situations, as well as overarching, long-term and strategic issues in the relationship between the two countries, according to a statement from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. More informal dialogues are expected to be held in the future to address formal issues in the Sino-Indian bilateral ties. 

Perception Gap 

The decision to hold an informal summit was made by the two leaders during the BRICS Summit, a meeting of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa in Xiamen, Fujian Province in China’s southeast, in early September 2017, according to an article in the People’s Daily on April 25 by China’s Ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui. The BRICS Summit was held just one week after the two countries ended their military standoff in Doklam (Finding the Border, Issue 51, China Report), a border area in the high Himalayas that separates China, India and Bhutan. Lin Minwang, vice director of the Center for South Asian Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, thinks the two-month Doklam standoff was the immediate reason that India proposed the meeting. 
There have been more than a few ups and downs in the Sino-Indian relationship in the past four years. Right before the Doklam standoff, the most serious confrontation between China and India since the bloody border war of 1962, India and Pakistan became members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional security organization established in Shanghai in 2001 by China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Uzbekistan. India is the second-largest shareholder in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a China-led initiative, and nearly a quarter of the projects approved by the AIIB are in India. In June 2015, China opened the Himalayan Nathu La Pass, the highest and shortest land pass for trade with India, to Indian pilgrims who wish to visit the sacred religious sites in Tibet. China had closed the pass during the Doklam standoff and it was reopened before the recent meeting between Xi and Modi. In June 2016, China launched an industrial park in India.  

India is keen to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a 48-member club which sets the rules for nuclear and nuclear-related exports. India is not a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which has been signed by 191 countries. China has repeatedly expressed its view that a formula for all non-NPT countries to apply for NSG membership must be worked out in the first place. In 2016, India sought to add Jaish-e-Muhammad (Army of Muhammad) to the United Nations Security Council terrorist blacklist. China argued that the case needed more deliberation and put it on technical hold.  

Long Xingchun of the Charhar Institute, a think tank based in Hebei Province and Beijing, said that China’s stance on India’s NSG application was regarded by Delhi as proof of Beijing’s resistance toward recognizing India as a nuclear power and to the rise of India. India is also concerned that China’s Belt and Road Initiative may  
diminish India’s influence in South Asia. 

With negative perceptions toward China’s intentions, India immediately interpreted China’s road construction in Doklam, which preceded the standoff, as an attempt to change the status quo. India’s intervention was based on this perception, Lin said.
A third party is also in the mix. The US National Security Strategy says “Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific,” and that the US will “seek to increase quadrilateral cooperation with Japan, Australia and India.” 
Senior officials of this grouping, known as “Quad,” met in Manila in November 2017 to discuss their cooperation. China is concerned that India, by embracing the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, is trying to build an Asian NATO to contain China. In December 2017, an Indian drone crashed on the Chinese side of the border. China’s Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of National Defense both criticized India for violating China’s sovereignty. 

Action Needed 

All this shows the urgency and significance of addressing the deficit in mutual trust between the two. 
Professor Swaran Singh with the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi told NewsChina that leaders of the two countries need to take action to push their relations forward after a period of stagnation in the past three years. He believes the Xi-Modi meeting in Wuhan would help build mutual trust, which is the most important goal for the current bilateral ties. 
Vice Foreign Minister Kong told the media that both Xi and Modi stressed repeatedly the significance of more mutual trust in the stable development of Sino-Indian relations. He said the top priority for the meeting was to put forward strategic and political guidelines for the bilateral relationship on the basis of communication between the two leaders. Their consensus is the foundation for solutions to technical issues at the working level. 
In his meeting with Modi, Xi expressed his hope that China and India regard each other as good neighbors and good friends. He believes the development of one country provides big opportunities for the development of the other. He added that both sides perceive the other’s intentions with a positive, open and inclusive attitude, according to a press release from China’s Foreign Ministry on April 28. Kong said Modi agreed with Xi’s views. 
The statement from China on the result of the meeting says the two countries will manage and control their divergences, particularly on border disputes, and strengthen cooperation on addressing global challenges like climate change and terror attacks.
The two countries are also in agreement on the need for multilateral free trade systems. “China and India have an increasing willingness to cooperate in multilateral areas, especially in terms of protecting world free trade order and globalization,” Li Li, from the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told NewsChina. As an emerging economy with a strong desire for growth, India needs a free and open trading system. 
The time that the two leaders spent together in Wuhan in improving mutual understanding will help bring stability and peace to the region. As a result, the rest of the world would not have to take sides between China and India, Singh said.  

More Informal Talks? 

This was the first time Xi and Modi had met in an informal way. The meeting was not expected to address particular disputes between the two countries. No specific issues, agreements or joint statements are set in this type of arrangement. Procedures are streamlined. This makes it possible for the leaders to focus on exchanging their views on international politics and their strategic judgments on the bilateral relationship. 
Similar efforts to improve working relations between the two leaders had been made before this meeting. In his first presidential visit to India in September 2014, Xi’s first stop was Gujarat, Modi’s home state. In May 2015, Modi’s first visit to China started in Xi’an, Xi’s hometown. 
Lin Minwang thinks the choice of Wuhan instead of Beijing for this informal meeting is probably based on the consideration that opposition forces in India might have used it against Modi if he had traveled to Beijing. 

Modi has also already visited several major cities in China, but not in Central China. Kong explained that China hoped Modi would gain further understanding about China on his Wuhan trip. 
Wuhan, a mega-city in the middle reaches of the Yangtze River, is a major transportation, industrial and education hub. On April 27, Xi and Modi visited the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan where they saw antiquities which dated back several thousand years. Lin said the purpose of the visit was to highlight the historical and cultural ties between the two civilizations, and the importance of keeping peace and friendship between the two neighbors. 
Apparently, the two leaders were happy with this informal way of meeting. They “highly assessed the opportunity for direct, free and candid exchange of views offered by the informal summit and agreed on the utility of holding more such dialogues in the future,” said a press release from the Indian government on April 28.  

Still, there is some way to go before the two sides can significantly improve their trust deficit, so whether formal or informal, more dialogues between the two Asian giants will be necessary.