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Buying time at Wuhan

April 30, 2018 11:17 IST

The Wuhan meetings signify an incremental shift in China’s position on India as well as each country buying time for the next phase of bilateral relations, says Srikanth Kondapalli.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan on April 28, 2018. @MEAIndia/Twitter

The “informal meeting” of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping from April 27-28, 2018, at Wuhan ended with both sides expressing positive sentiments about coordination in bilateral and international issues, although with no major announcements on any contentious issue between the two “simultaneously emerging” countries, it appears both were buying time for the next phase of evolving relations.

Of course, much bonhomie prevailed at meetings between the leaders of two most populous countries in the world. PM Modi thanked President Xi for receiving him twice out of Beijing and invited the latter to visit India in 2019.

Historical and cultural links were alluded to as with the responsibility of the two leaders to uplift 40 percent of the global population. Global power matrix was touched upon by suggesting that the prestige and glory of these two countries in historical times be restored.

 

There appeared to be more consensus on international issues, an area more of interest to China given its expanding foot print.

Xi’s comments are instructive in this regard. He stated that both “should regard each other as a positive factor in the balance of global power” a euphemism for working together in the international institutions for assertion of their say and more say.

A decade ago, both voiced concerns on the need for reorganisation of the Bretton Woods lending institutions. As a result, China’s voting rights in the International Monetary Fund almost doubled, with a marginal increase in Indian position.

Of course, this time around, China has not said anything about the expansion of the United Nations Security Council.

Xi also suggested that both countries form the “backbone forces for promoting multipolarisation and economic globalisation”. Against the backdrop of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s forthcoming meeting at Qingdao, multi-polarisation -- a concept proposed by the then Russian Premier Primakov in the ’90s -- came to mean a “united front” of emerging powers against any unilateral actions of the United States.

Also, with identical views on globalisation and against trade protectionism -- reflected in Modi and Xi speeches at Davos and G-20 meetings --  the above emphasis in the Chinese leader’s observation comes in the wake of the emerging trade war with the US.

The clues in the released tweets also suggest to the focus on countering terrorism in “all its manifestations” but silent on specifics on Pakistan based terrorists. Nevertheless, it is expected that the current Hand-in-Hand joint operations between the two armies could be expanded in numbers and qualitative scenarios in the near future.

At the bilateral level, specifically on the border stability aspects that nearly led to a crisis in bilateral relations last year at Doklam, the statement suggests to both sides issuing “strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding”. This leads to speculation of civilian control of the militaries in both countries, but more specifically in China given the activism of the PLA in recent times on the borders.

The talks were conducted in a relaxed atmosphere suggesting to the easing of any tensions between the two. The press release from China’s military on the first day of the talks suggests to possible understanding on easing tensions on the border rocked by the border patrol stand-off at Doklam last year.

While the details are still not clear, it is likely that effective confidence building measures -- an idea floated at the two leaders meeting at Xiamen the venue of the BRICS meeting last September -- could be unveiled gradually for ushering in stability. Six CBM measures exist between the two countries so far. Possibly more efforts could be made to intensify the current mechanisms.

Both leaders also stressed the need for economic development, specifically in the infrastructure development projects such as hydro-electricity projects as PM Modi alluded to on the first day of the meetings. Also, the urban development schemes, spectacularly displayed in Wuhan, attracted the PM’s attention who revealed that he spent a day several years ago in the region to study the economic development of China.

One surprising announcement is the proposal for joint economic projects in Afghanistan, although such a proposal in 2010 to mine iron ore is still gathering dust given the security situation in that country. With China’s foreign minister Wang Yi announcing recently to include Afghanistan in the extended China-Pakistan Economic Corridor -- given the emerging challenges in Pakistan for this project -- Beijing realises that its policies in this regard need a broad-based fillip.

Finally, cultural relations are another arena with huge scope in expanding people-to-people contacts, films, book fairs and exhibitions, exchanges of media personnel, students and professionals, cultural troupes and others.

Visit to the HubeiProvincialMuseum artifacts on the first day also underlined the need for preservation of cultural artifacts -- an area with which both countries are extensively endowed with. The agreement on expanding tourism in the Buddhist circuit could give fillip to this sector, although New Delhi should know that Beijing at times utilises tourism as a political tool as the cases of Taiwan and South Korea indicates.

Overall, while no major announcements were made at the two-day meeting Wuhan meeting signifies to an incremental shift in China’s position on India -- reflected in the two-day talks as well as Xi’s implicit indication of a “new type of major power” status for India. Despite the bonhomie, Wuhan meeting also reflects to each buying time for the next phase of bilateral relations.

Srikanth Kondapalli is Professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Srikanth Kondapalli