The first post-election meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping took place on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.
Nothing of great consequence is likely to emerge from the summit itself. But there has been considerable interest in the Xi-Modi meeting held on the sidelines on Thursday, 13 June.
Following the delegation-level talks, Indian Spokesman Raveesh Kumar said that the two leaders discussed “all aspects” of our bilateral relationship and emphasised the importance of “strategic communication” in bettering them.
Clearly, a substantive discussion on our bilateral relationship will await the second Xi-Modi summit on the Wuhan format which is scheduled for October. After the meeting, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale confirmed that President Xi had accepted Prime Minister Modi’s invitation for the summit and that both sides will now begin preparations in earnest.
According to Gokhale, Modi took the opportunity to convey to Xi that unless Islamabad took concrete action to curb terrorism, it could not expect a substantive dialogue with India. This was a nuanced point as the subject is something that relates to the SCO as well.
The Watershed Moment in Indo-China Relations
According to records, the two leaders have met more than 10 times in the last five years. The Wuhan summit of April 2018 where they had several rounds of one-on-one meetings over two days was the watershed moment in our relationship.
Since Wuhan, they have met thrice. In contrast, Modi has not met President Trump since November 2017, despite the US being designated our special strategic partner.
Between Wuhan I and II, there have been huge shifts in the international system. On the one hand, China has come under intense US pressure in the arenas of trade and technology. Even now, it is not clear whether there will be a Xi-Trump meeting at the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka towards the end of June. On the other hand, Modi has returned to power and appears stronger today than he has been in the recent past.
India too, is offering a more nuanced policy, emphasising both engagement and competition with China. Perhaps the best indicator of this was the recent travels of INS Kolkata, one of India’s most modern warships. At the end of April 2019, it was one of two ships to participate in the International Fleet Review organised by China at Qingdao to mark the 70th anniversary of the PLA Navy. On its way back to India in early May, the ship undertook a “group sail” exercise with that of the US, Japan and the Philippines in the South China Sea. An official press release noted that the ships were actually returning from a deployment in South and East China Sea and had, besides participating in the Chinese IFR, visited ports in Vietnam and South Korea.
From a Rocky Beginning to Better Understanding
The first few years of the Modi-Xi relationship were rocky. On the one hand, there surfaced images of them cavorting on a swing in Ahmedabad in 2014, during the latter’s visit to India. On the other hand, there was a border confrontation in Chumur at the same time.
Modi’s efforts to persuade China to reduce such incidents by clarifying the Line of Actual Control were rebuffed by China, both during the Xi visit of 2014 and Modi’s return visit of 2015.
Instead, China pushed to upgrade its Pakistan alliance by announcing the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
New Delhi pushed what is called the “Tibet card”, and its somewhat loud and public hectoring of China to support its membership in the NSG and getting Masood Azhar were resented by Beijing. Then came the confrontation in Doklam. Though it did not involve territory claimed by India, the Indian Army intervened to block a Chinese road construction crew in an extremely sensitive area in the China-Bhutan-India tri-junction.
Beijing huffed and puffed, but New Delhi stood firm, confident that it occupied militarily unassailable positions.
Beijing backed off and the process lead to the Wuhan meetings and an understanding between New Delhi and Beijing that extreme positions on issues would be counter-productive.
The Relevance of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation
As for the SCO, it is an eight-member bloc which hasn’t quite decided whether its focus is security or economic links, or both. India and Pakistan were admitted to it in 2017. It is a multilateral body that India has signed up to in order to establish its geopolitical standing as a Eurasian power.
By itself, the SCO has not managed to emerge as either a force for counter-terrorism or an economic group. It helps position India as a Eurasian actor, especially since another member of the SCO, Pakistan, has successfully blocked our overland access to West and Central Asia and Europe beyond.
Membership in the SCO legitimises our quest to develop these links and can indirectly be used to pressurise Pakistan to lift its blockade, as Central Asian countries would like to develop links to help them offset the pull and the pressure they feel from Russia and China.
Even so, both India and China are aware that the SCO’s credibility also depends on its ability to play a significant role in the global effort against terrorism. This is where Pakistan, a fellow member comes into play. China has signalled to India that it would not want Pakistan-origin terrorism to become the target of the Bishkek meeting and instead focus on contemporary “international relations and regional issues.”
India is likely to go along with this, especially since quiet diplomacy succeeded in getting Beijing to designate Masood Azhar a terrorist in the list of the UN’s 1267 Committee.
China will hesitate to blame the Pakistani state for terrorist activities. But Prime Minister Modi has already made his point in his meeting with Xi, he doesn’t quite have to press it.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow Observer Research Foundation and a member of Naresh Chandra Task Force on Defence Reforms. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)