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Moving ahead steadily

Moving ahead steadily

Wisdom lies in understanding that interest is greater than dispute. The second edition of Modi-Xi informal summit in Chennai has been a fine diplomatic exercise whose highlight was the conspicuous avoidance of discussion over difficult matters and exchange of words pertaining to matters of mutual interests, albeit in distinct degrees. China may be little interested in striking a deal with India, but despite that, the two leaders arriving on an agreement for a 'new mechanism' to address trade imbalance counts as positive result. Certainly, trade and the uninterrupted flow of it are vital for an economy, both domestically and bilaterally. Given that, the palpable absence of talks over India's Kashmir move was point to matters of respective domestic interests of both India and China. In what India asserts is an internal decision to improve the compounded situation in the country's northern most region, the ensuing series of objectionable steps such as communication blackout, restriction on movements, curfews, and lockdown that still hasn't been lifted to favourable extents had the world, international media, and even the civil society in India express their concern and voice their criticism against the government's abrasive move. Pakistan has been particularly hyper-vocal in consolidating global support against India for its Kashmir move but their good friend China's silence on the matter has been rather loud—presumably to keep under wraps their own disputable stance with respect to the ethnic cleansing and the inhumanity committed against the Uighur Muslims of China's Xinjiang province. Choosing to avoid discussion over dispute was, in fact, a decision to avoid any hindrance in the flow of pleasentries. The question still looms large: with only limited concrete outcome, to what cause may one attribute this grand exercise of the two world leaders meeting in a lesser popular destination of historic significance? For one, there is some very stark indication of moving steadily towards an era of personal diplomacy where ties between nations are better managed through relation between top leadership and not directed by structured systems.

Certainly, carrying out discussions over trade is hitting the right notes, although it is for India to introspect its convenient trade practices in association with China and its current status of economic crisis; but nonetheless, it is never quite an assurance how much of a friend can China really be. Notwithstanding the ornate rhetoric of describing Xi-Modi meet as "in-depth", "heart-to-heart", and "candid" where they apparently talked of "pragmatic cooperation" and "consolidating the foundation", China's state-controlled media network Xinhua followed with a long statement that quoting Xi as saying that "China and India should be good neighbours who live in harmony and work together as good partners", and that "the dragon and the elephant (should) dance together." The "Chennai Connect" may have marked the "start of a new era of cooperation between the two countries", but what remains to be seen is that given the huge power imbalance between the two Asian giants, it is less than pragmatic to expect a revision and restructuring of ties or deliverables between the two nations. However, the focus on trade seemed to draw the Chinese President to be amenable to the fact that the vast imbalance in figures that are heavily skewed against India is unsustainable and needs to be addressed. According to latest data, annual bilateral trade stands at $95.54 billion in 2018 with India's deficit pegged at $53 billion. Under the "new mechanism" agreed upon to address the trade imbalance, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua will work out the differences for a more equitable trading partnership and discussions will be held on trade, investment, and services. For now, it may be interpreted as a kind of assurance that the conversation surrounding trade between Chinese President Xi Jinping and PM Modi in the second informal summit has brought China to a position where it is ready to take sincere action and to discuss in very concrete ways the methods to reduce the trade deficit. Obviously, calling in question at this point is whether previous discussions along these lines were concrete enough or not, or whether China was sufficiently sincere in its promises earlier for addressing the trade imbalance. With respect to RCEP that proposes a free trade agreement between 16 nations including India and China, the common regional trade pact is a looming fear in India that it will open Indian market further for Chinese companies to exploit. Insisting that India is ready for RCEP but its concerns on having a FTA that maintains a good balance between trading in goods, services and investment is necessary to be taken into account. The most positive result of the summit, however, is mutually agreeing on the need for greater people to people connect and tourism as these are more concrete areas that offer ground for following up.

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