What happened at Mamallapuram during 2nd Informal Xi-Modi summit?

This week Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the South Indian city of Chennai for an informal summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This was the second edition of the informal summits that China and India are having, with the first one happening in 2018 in China in the city of Wuhan & hence post summit this new interaction between both nations was referred to as the “Wuhan Spirit”.

What happened at Wuhan in April 2018?

The Wuhan summit came post a build-up of tensions between India & China over the few preceding years & culminated in the standoff at Doklam Plateau at the India-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction in middle of 2017. What however has happened that both the government’s ardent supporters & it’s most vocal critics have tended to read too much into the Wuhan summit. Both sides had acknowledged that the relation between both sides had become highly strained & that they needed to sit down to talk to each other. The modus vivendi of the past few decades had broken down & that new CBM (confidence building measures) needed to be undertaken. This was more of a reset than anything else. Though many critics have considered it to be a massive failure due to events post summit & supporters have touted it to be a huge success both of which would be incorrect to say.

In the ~1.5 years that have passed since the 1st informal summit in Wuhan, has the “Wuhan spirit” faded away?

It is important to note that although Wuhan was hailed as an ice breaking meeting, there was no joint statement issued between both the sides. Both China and India had issued separate statements.

The Indian press release had mooted it as a “positive factor for stability amidst current global uncertainties.” It was driven by the need to promote “strategic communications”— high-level interactions with the view of removing mistrust, and reduce the danger of miscalculation in the wake of the Doklam incident. Before the meeting and after it, we saw a surge in the frequency of high-level ministerial and official visits between India and China, and meetings between ministers and leaders of the two countries.

Among the important achievements was the strategic guidance to the two forces to maintain peace and tranquility on the border. This has broadly ensured peace on the LAC and also given a fillip to military exchanges between the two sides. Though India and China were not able to do a joint project in Afghanistan, they did manage a joint training program for Afghan diplomats. And in May, China did come forward to lift its hold on the designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist under the UN’s 1267 Committee.

In the past year, the two sides have held their 6th Strategic Economic Dialogue and the 9th Finance Dialogue, and they have continued to cooperate in multilateral mechanisms like the Russia-India-China trilateral, BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the G20. Yet, the climate of relations in which the Mamallapuram meeting takes place, is more complex and difficult than at the time of Wuhan.

What was obvious to see prior to the Mamallapuram informal summit was the manner in which India showed resilience. It’s well known that the establishment in New Delhi was emboldened by the stupendous victory in 2019 May elections. Even when China was issuing adverse statements and making antagonistic remarks after the Indian government revoked the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, India did manage to push back China by saying that this was an internal issue of the country and it would accept no intervention from any third party.

Politically from a domestic angle the Modi government has come back for a 2nd term with a resounding majority & Xi Jinping is more or less the “president for life” in China. So it is quite obvious that the two leaderships will have to deal with each other. There is no way that they can wish away the other person. So they will have to find ways to continue talking & to take the ties forward.

In fact China’s initial reaction to India’s move to remove the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was muted until Home Minister Amit Shah announced in the Indian parliament that the state of Jammu and Kashmir included Aksai Chin too. This riled up the Chinese and eventually Minister for External Affairs S Jaishankar had to clarify during his visit to China that India was not making any new territorial claims as part of the status change.

During the lead up to the Mamallapuram summit, a visit by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to New Delhi which was to be held in the second week of September was cancelled at the last minute. This visit by the Foreign Minister was meant to not only discuss the modalities of the Mamallapuram visit but was also supposed to have another round of Special Representatives’ talks.

So, what are these (SR)Special Representatives’ talks?

Special Representatives’ talks have been going on since 2003. Since then there have been 21 rounds of talks to find a solution to the 6 decade long boundary dispute. Despite these many rounds of talks and negotiations, China hasn’t been forthcoming about its claims, and has continued to keep the issue running as it sees no advantage in resolving the dispute with India.

Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor, who is also the Special Representative, was expected to travel to Delhi to meet NSA chief Ajit Doval. Wang would have traveled after having completed a visit to Pakistan. 

Officially, as per the Chinese foreign ministry, the meeting was pushed back due to scheduling constraints from the Indian side. However, reports in the Indian press suggest that the fact that he was due to travel from Pakistan was viewed in an unfavourable light as it would imply hyphenating India with Pakistan. This is something that India has been very cautious about: i.e. they don’t want any world leader from any third nation to come from Pakistan to India. This was the same thing that happened when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) visited Pakistan earlier this year. He had to return from Islamabad all the way back to Riyadh before coming back to New Delhi.

Wang’s Islamabad visit on September 7-8 mentioned the Kashmir issue. It said that China opposes “unilateral actions,” but sees this as “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.” 

India’s foreign ministry was prompt to criticise this reference to Kashmir, specifically mentioning the CPEC projects and raising concerns about changes in the status quo in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

At the same time, reports tell us of the first serious post-Wuhan border incident between Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh that week. The standoff was reportedly resolved after delegation-level talks. There were some unconfirmed reports that due to the strategic communication issued to the armed forces of both nations post Wuhan this was resolved within a few days. This helped end the standoff sooner rather than later compared to earlier standoffs (2014 Chumar, 2013 DBO) etc. which seemed to linger for a few weeks before the Chinese withdrew back to their side of the LAC.

While this happened in early September, the second half of September saw all the action shifting to New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly annual meeting.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s recent comments at a program organised by New York-based Council on Foreign Relations where he said: “Considering that international affairs is a business of realism… there are differences we have with China. It’s not a secret. They accept it. We accept it. We have a boundary issue… We have other areas where we may not always agree. But I think today it is a very stable relationship. It’s a very mature relationship. Where we differ, we have mechanisms and a sort of a—in a way a sort of ethos of handling it. And frankly, it’s not a relationship that has given cause for anxiety to the world for many, many years.”

India has had a “blow hot blow cold” relationship with Pakistan & has had armed conflict with the Pakistanis quite often. However one thing to remember is that since the 1967 Nathu La border clashes not a single shot has been fired in anger across the LAC (Line of Actual Control) for over 52 years. We do have transgressions & territorial disputes with China but it’s sort of a stable relationship even with the Chinese needling us constantly at the LAC. A recent report interestingly mentioned that even the Chinese on their side claim transgressions by Indian side but unlike the media in India those reports are generally not very well highlighted in Chinese media. India has a dispute with Pakistan over POJK but we do have delineated LOC (Line of Control) up to point NJ9842. But for the LAC keeping aside the territorial claims made by both sides there is no delineated border at all. So while troops of one side might genuinely think that they are patrolling on their own territory the opposite side might think that they are encroaching on their territory. When you have an undefined border with a differing perception of where the actual border should lie creates many of these issues of reported encroachments on both sides. This issue of a delineated LOC vs a non-delineated LAC often gets overlooked in the discussion of the boundary dispute. This is where the mandate of the previously mentioned SR (Special Representative) comes into picture: Define, Delineate & Demarcate. While there have 21 rounds of these talks we have not resolved the boundary dispute. The frustrating part on India’s side is that while we have put forth our claims the Chinese for some apparent reason have never put forth their claims. Once both sides put forth their claims some resolution can be reached via a bargain or negotiations. But without any claims from one side it becomes hard to reach a settlement if not impossible. Chinese have made some noises about what they call an “early harvest “ which could possibly refer to settling the border dispute in the central part which covers Uttarakhand region but only time will tell if any of this comes to fruition.

Both countries approached the Mamallapuram summit with their own wish lists. While for India, it was trade deficit, border dispute redressal mechanisms, and global fight against terror, for China it was to convince India to wholeheartedly embrace Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

What is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)?

Both sides have been sparring over the terms of the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. After years of negotiations, there are now serious questions about India being part of the pact. While Indian industry and government have a number of concerns with regard to RCEP that need addressing, chief among them is the nature of trade with China and the prospects of Chinese goods flooding the Indian market. China over the past few decades has manage to flood the Indian market but now with a FTA with 16 nations this problem could even become worse with an even larger volume of goods entering the Indian market from all these new countries. This is one of the concerns why India has not wholeheartedly agreed to join the RCEP. The sheer size of India’s target market means that other nations are willing to wait a bit on India. But they are also getting irritated at having to wait because of India & are making last ditch efforts to keep India on board. But if India can’t be brought on board they will have to go by themselves.

What can India and China really co-operate on?

Though India has several divergences with China but also there are some convergences with China on multilateral organizations BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), New Development Bank, IMF (International Monetary Fund) and global issues like climate change. India and China have had similar complaints about representation in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). During the Wuhan summit, it was decided that India & China will jointly train Afghan diplomats. As per some reports India and China are now planning to cooperate in training law enforcement officers and cooperate in protection of archaeological sites in Afghanistan. A Chinese official said some time ago:

“We are planning to hold training for law enforcement officers as well as archaeological protection, particular in these fields where the two sides are in a good position to cooperate with each other,” it was announced.

China also announced that it is in favour of expanding the mechanism of India-China cooperating in a third country.

This is a very tricky situation for India when and where they enter into joint partnership to develop in third countries. While India is known for being notoriously slow, China is known to be super quick in completing projects before the deadline. Any attempt to enter into a joint partnership might mean that the Indian portion of the project is progressing at a snail’s pace and might not help India’s image worldwide.

Cooperation would be most likely be in the “soft space” like training of diplomats, institution building, capacity building & unlikely to be in the “hard space” like infrastructure building. Infrastructure building by China involves predatory loans with debt traps & work being done by Chinese SOE’s (state-owned enterprises) which would make little sense for India to join in.

What were the key expectations from the summit?

There was no grand bargain in the offing as the scope for give and take in Mamallapuram was very low. Officials on both sides will have to work hard to project any kind of substantial tangible outcome. There have been some speculation about more Confidence Building Measures (CBM) to be announced post summit.

Another major irritant just before the Mamallapuram Summit was India conducting a military exercise called Operation Him Vijay.

China expressed concern about the India’s Him Vijay exercise which is ongoing in Arunachal Pradesh. The Chinese reaction is hardly surprising given the strategic significance of this exercise.

For a very long time India had not developed infrastructure in areas on our side of border adjoining to Tibet. The reasoning was that lack of infrastructure would slow down any Chinese advances into Indian Territory during times of localized incidents and/or war. 

However seeing the massive upgradation of the infrastructure in the Tibetan Plateau around a decade ago this strategy was finally discarded & India got down to improving the infrastructure on its side of the border.

Now the question remains that in the event of a land grab by the Chinese in any sector across the LAC what would be India’s options then be. Indian armed forces will certainly put all effort to repel the invaders at all costs. However another option to put pressure back on China is for India to open up a front somewhere else along LAC to make an incursion into Tibet. Once a ceasefire is called this could be used as a bargaining chip to go back to the status quo. This would be akin to the events in the 1965 India Pakistan war. During the early days of the war Pakistan made a thrust into the Chamb sector in J&K. In response a few days later Indian Army crossed the International Border & made a countering attack towards Lahore.

For this very reason, the Indian Army’s XVII Corps called as Mountain Strike Corps (MSC) based in Panagarh, West Bengal was raised for an offensive strike into Tibet. The MSC is deploying three Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) to this Him Vijay exercise to test out the concept of an IBG in practice in mountain warfare.

Nitin Pai director of the Takshashila Institution has pointed out this week in an article that

“As for military activities during official visits, China should be the last to complain. In 1992, Beijing tested a megaton nuclear weapon when then-President R. Venkataraman was on the first ever visit by an Indian president to China. In 2007, China conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test when its foreign minister Li Zhaoxing was on an official visit to India. More recently, in 2014, the PLA carried out incursions in Chumar and Demchok even as Xi was swinging with Modi in a jhoola in Ahmedabad. If China claims its pattern of effrontery during high-level visits is innocent, then well, so is the Indian Army’s exercise, Him Vijay.”.

During the 2014 incursion into Chumar, Modi did point out to Xi in Ahmedabad (while he was visiting India) that the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) was not in sync with his thoughts & actions trying to point out disconnect between both (i.e. PLA & Xi) which could affect India-China bilateral ties.

What were the nitty gritties of picking this South Indian port town as the location for the informal summit?

The summit was planned and executed in a deliberate way to showcase it as a success. Highlighting the millennia old ties between Mamallapuram and China, having a South India specific cuisine for dinner, exchanging thoughtfully manufactured gifts were all meant to strengthen the case for the summit’s success. In addition, it was a conscious decision to not just stay away from New Delhi but also from other usual North Indian locations like Agra to keep the expectations as low as possible.

What were the other major topics which were discussed?

Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale addressed the press after the culmination of the talks and indicated that the two dignitaries did not discuss about the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The secretary repeated that India continues to view J&K as a domestic issue.

The biggest takeaway for India from the summit was the fact that the two countries agreed to setup a high-level group on trade, investment and manufacturing to tackle the ever-increasing trade deficit. In this regard it was agreed further that India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman would discuss modalities with the Chinese counterpart Hu Chunhua to come up with measures to bring the deficit down. Bilateral trade between China and India reached $95.54 billion in 2018, with the trade deficit at $53 billion in China’s favour, the biggest India has with any country. India’s deficit with just a single nation China is ~35% of India’s overall trade deficit with all nations of the world combined. India’s deficit with the Modi government almost doubled from the beginning of his first time till last year.

India also managed to get a nod from China with regards to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the need for the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to be ‘balanced’ for it to be more palatable to India.

Another achievement of sorts for India was the fact that China didn’t raise the issue of Jammu & Kashmir. While it is obvious that China has made enough noise globally harming India’s interests by siding with Pakistan, Xi Jinping didn’t bring it up for discussion with Modi. One possible reason for this could have been the fact that Minister for External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar had recently visited Beijing and had appraised them of India’s stand on Jammu & Kashmir. If we can recollect Xi’s visit to Ahmedabad in 2014 which also happened amidst the backdrop of a serious incursion by the Chinese troops across the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh, Modi had been quick to point out to Xi Jinping that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was not willing to listen to Xi when it came to LAC. Indrani Bagchi noted in her report today that Modi continues to see this dichotomy where Xi speaks one language while his administration speaks another. Same template was played out even during Dolam crisis and the informal summit was proposed to address such tricky issues in an informal manner.

Xi Jinping didn’t raise the issue of Huawei being considered for 5G proposals in India. India will have to address this issue sometime in the near future when it will have to decide whether to permit the Chinese telecom infrastructure giant to setup 5G networks in the country. This decision, whenever taken, has the ability to alleviate or strain the bilateral ties in the future. The Chinese have already made veiled threats to this effect. USA has already told all its allies that Huawei is a security threat & if they allow Huawei to setup 5G networks in their countries it would result in a serious threat to national security. India has however officially made no decision on whether to include Huawei for 5G or not. Two of the big operators in India Reliance Jio & Bharti Airtel as per a report recently have decided to go with Samsung, Nokia & Ericsson for the 5G Trials. It seems that the operators can’t keep waiting forever for the governments decisions on Huawei & have decided for the moment to proceed without Huawei. This way without making a decision India has managed to keep Huawei away for now. Now it is hard to discern if this has been made with a smart & deliberate strategy by the government of keeping Huawei away without angering the Chinese. Or should we give chalk this one up simply to the notoriously slow movement of decision making within the Indian bureaucracy.

At a more generic level, both the leaders agreed to stay away from making damaging statements regarding the other country, with an obvious reference to Hong Kong and Jammu & Kashmir. But we have seen many instances earlier when India held up its end of the bargain (like not talking about Tibet, Xinjiang or Taiwan) while China was more than willing to break its promise. So, it wouldn’t be surprising if China would not live up to its end of the bargain.

What are the conclusions from this informal summit?

To conclude, the whole path from Wuhan Spirit to Chennai Connect has been the manner in which there had been very less traction from April 2018 until now. These are 2 extremely popular leaders within their two nations and it is this which aids them to harden their positions on almost all aspects of discussions be it terrorism, trade deficit, security, border disputes. By virtue of digging their heels, they stand up strong and straight with the sole purpose of projecting powerful versions of themselves. All bonhomie and smiles apart, there is still a long way to go before we term this relationship substantial. For now, both sides continue to parrot the same lines – we agree to not let differences turn into disputes. Having said this, should we scrap these informal summits too? Of course not! This is the only available avenue now for both the countries to stay engaged. Such engagements help the 2 nations understand each other’s position, what and where the red lines and what are the potential areas of cooperation. Slowly but surely, these informal summits are gaining traction. After all, Xi has invited Modi to China next year for the third edition of the informal summit. The proof of the pudding lies in not how many informal summits do these 2 leaders have, but in what tangible results do these summits achieve.

India & China will have to keep talking to each other in spite of what happens in the US-China & India-US relationship. The US will continue to be the “elephant in the room” in the India-China relationship. The summit will also help India to put forth its perspective on Pakistan with China in spite of our differences. China with its distraction with HK & the trade war with US & didn’t want another situation on the border to take most of its time while dealing with all the various global uncertainties. They see no harm in talking to India but once these issues dissipate will they return to taking more of a hawkish stance against India?

Now this summit might not create huge changes in Indian Foreign Policy towards China. But it’s best to at least keep talking because it keeps the temperature low (unlike Dolam standoff) because there is no other alternative to talking. India & China would not be wanting to go to a war to resolve their boundary dispute. One phrase that is widely used especially by the Indian diplomats is how to “manage the relationship” i.e. how to manage the relations despite the various differences on boundary, trade, etc. Both leaders are trying to convey their path forward (to the other side) for the aspirations & future goals for their respective nations. This helps the other side have a better understanding which would help in reducing the probabilities of misconceptions which could then strain ties. Now while discussing your goals & aspirations is good it doesn’t go anywhere towards resolving thorny issues like boundary which will still require long hard work but it’s better than not talking at all. Many critics point to the lack of big ticket gains from these summits but it is certainly better than not talking at all. The supporters of these informal summits shouldn’t go to town tom-tomming about the benefits of such summits. Similarly the naysayers shouldn’t be dismissive about these summits.

Note: This was originally discussed on Episode 22 of the India Rising podcast (@indiarisingmk) hosted by Mohal Joshi (@MohalJoshi) & Kishor Narayan (@veggiediplomat). (Below are links to the episode)

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASvcUmtynB4

SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/indiarisingmk/india-rising-ep-22-chennai-connect-and-india-china-ties

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