The informal chemistry
Will Mamallapuram yield anything vis-à-vis Sino-Indian cooperation or remain a mere diplomatic offshoot bearing no fruit like its predecessors?
Despite the fact that two earlier informal summits between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Sabarmati and Wuhan could not deliver much in real terms, if the outcome of third one at Mamallapuram proves more than just of shunning all the formalities and strait-jacketed nature of traditional diplomacy, I would not be able to refrain myself from running and hugging Modi; provided he allows me to. Past five years have told us that Modi believes in giving far bigger emphasis to optics than to actual outcomes when he pays visits to world leaders in their respective countries or receives them on Indian soil. He lacks the fundamental articulation required for a core diplomatic activity. Even on a strictly formal international stage, we have seen him performing in such an informal manner that sometimes world leaders find themselves in embarrassing situations.
So, informal summits have now become the favoured modus operandi for Modi, especially in the case of meetings with the Chinese president. He feels comfortable during these relaxed sessions because there is no way that one can figure out the definite achievements of the talks. There is no need for any joint declaration, any joint statement or joint media interaction. It is the vagueness that gives one an entire zone of comfort for interpreting the discussions. This is why Sabarmati and Wuhan could never produce any real fruits. Assurances given by China are still to see the light of the day after five years.
If the personal chemistry that Modi has with Xi, as he has been repeatedly claiming after becoming prime minister, could not get India anything more than somehow only managing differences in the relationship after a reasonable span of five years, why should we feel so overwhelmed on Mamallapuram? It is easy to send out a message through such informal summits that all is well at the top, but it is not that easy to convince the ranks. Personal chemistry between any two leaders, even if it is really very good, can not necessarily push the two countries in the expected direction. We have been watching China changing its colours on Kashmir issue every second day till Xi landed at Chennai this Friday afternoon. China has always been telling the world, and specifically India, in a very distinguishable tone that his friendship with Pakistan is non-negotiable forever.
This was the first meeting between Modi and Xi post abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir. Before reaching India, Xi had said that China is keeping a close eye on the developments in Kashmir. Chinese had also strongly objected to Indian Army's exercise a week before Xi's visit to India near the Line of Actual Control in Arunachal Pradesh. One can only imagine if Modi raised any of these issues during his one-and-one talks with Xi. Chinese president leaving for Nepal after Mamallapuram informal summit is also indicative in diplomatic terms. India must not ignore the fact that China was the first country to openly articulate its opposition on the Kashmir issue during the informal consultations at the United Nations Security Council. Chinese foreign minister spoke the same at the United Nations General Assembly. Similar sentiments were expressed in the joint declaration after Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan's visit to Beijing, which was hurriedly rushed through Xi's visit to Mamallapuram.
Modi has told us after his six-hour-long informal talks with Xi that a new era of cooperation between India and China has begun with 'Chennai connect'. Xi has also told us that the discussions on bilateral relations were 'candid, heart-to-heart, in-depth and good'. Let us believe all this, as we believed in 2014 and 2016 at Sabarmati and Wuhan, where also 'new eras' had begun. While leaving India this time, Xi said, 'maintaining and expanding the Sino-India relations is a firm policy of his government'. I am sure, what he meant from this is applicable only for business activities and not for strategic areas, border disputes, etc.
Diplomacy requires more than rhetorics of 'we will prudently manage our differences, we will not allow our contrasts to become disputes, we will remain sensitive about each other's concerns, we will lead to peace and stability across the world', blah…blah. Every second script of resolutions between countries is full of such endless sentences for decades. Mentions of the allegories like 'for most of the last two thousand years, India and China were among the world's leading economic powers and now in this century, we are together getting back to that status' are also meaningless unless realities are changed on hard economic grounds in India.
There is no doubt that the two leaders spent quality time, but only time will tell us about the improvement in the quality of efforts by China in dealing with the issues of radicalisation and terrorism. Will Xi honestly ensure that Pakistan does not promote the activities that affect multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society in India? Will Xi genuinely provide a level playing field to Indian businesses in China, identify the new areas for investments and enhancing two-way trade volume and make such policies that correct the trade deficit and trade imbalance? Without this, 'Chennai connect' will prove as hallow a term as 'Wuhan spirit' demonstrated.
We also have to see how much efforts China devotes for India's concerns over the Reginal Comprehensive Economic Partnership. India has been pushing for having a rules-based global trading system for years. Xi has shown keenness about the need for enhancing defence cooperation. But he does not want to discuss China's role in the Indian Ocean and the issues related to the South China Sea. Relaxing of visa rules by India for Chinese citizens is a good gesture, but what about multiple entry visas to Indian citizens from any of its part?
In one of my trips to Chinese Think Tanks based at Beijing and Shanghai, I was informally told by a scholar that they find India as the only power in the region that can be a counterweight to China. Therefore, it is in the best interest of China to box India with Pakistan. The longer it can be done, the longer it will take India to challenge China's domination in Asia. One of the scholars in Tsinghua University mentioned to me about the axiom they had first come up with that after World War II, America could rise so fast because no country was capable to confront it on either coast—the Atlantic or the Pacific. 'Therefore, the time till 2050 is extremely decisive for China', he explained to me.
With its intrinsic ambition of becoming a bigger global superpower than the United States, China is no India's cup of tea. Expecting from a country that has not bothered to travel with India with the agreed speed, why do you think China will put its India cooperation on an unprecedented fast track? India has enough grounds for cautious optimism with China. Modi could be overconfident with his skills of 'personal chemistry diplomacy', but the world is not that angelic.
(The author is the Editor and CEO of News Views India and a national office bearer of the Congress party. The views expressed are strictly personal)