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The Modi-Xi Summit: What Not to Talk About

ARTICLES - 22 October 2019

When 2.7 bln people speak in one voice, world will listen titled an opinion piece of the Chinese newspaper Xinhua prior to the informal summit between the Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which took place on October 11 and 12. The question remains whether what these 2.7 billion people have to say is interesting enough for the world to listen.

The two leaders met in Mamallapuram, a town bordering the Bay of Bengal in the southeastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Modi gave Xi a tour through the historical monuments of Mamallapuram, a gesture that resembled their first informal summit last April, when the Chinese president took Modi on a tour in Wuhan.

Their meeting focused mainly on Islamist extremism as well as trade and investment issues. Both leaders pledged to work together against "radicalization", which is a concern to both countries. China is mainly concerned about its Western province of Xinjiang, where tensions between the Han majority and the Muslim Uighur minority have led to several waves of violence in recent years. As China blames the unrest on Islamist militants, it has severely increased control and restrictions on the Uighur population. In addition to increasing mass surveillance and security the authorities pursue mass detentions of the Muslim minority in so-called "vocational education and training centers". International organizations, as well as Western countries, have criticized China for its mass human rights abuses. China justifies its Xinjiang policy as a measure to combat terrorism.

India, meanwhile, is dealing with the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir, which has reached a new level since the Modi government stripped away the state’s special status at the beginning of August. Ever since, his government imposed harsh restrictions to maintain security, including rigid curfew restrictions to prevent protests. It is the state with the largest population of Muslims in India and has long been subject to conflict between India and Pakistan. China, too, has some territorial claims in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Their meeting focused mainly on Islamist extremism as well as trade and investment issues. Both leaders pledged to work together against "radicalization", which is a concern to both countries.

Beijing sharply criticized India's decision and also supported Pakistan in raising the situation in Kashmir at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. Xi Jinping had also met Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan in Beijing right before his meeting with Modi, in order to reassure Islamabad of its support. During the meeting, Xi emphasized that he was watching the situation in Kashmir and would support Pakistan in issues relating to its core interests. India, which traditionally resists outside intervention on Kashmir, has not addressed the issue at the UN.

In view of trade and investment, both leaders pledged to enhance both the trade values as well as trade volumes in order to bridge the Sino-Indian trade deficit. Bilateral trade between the two countries had roughly reached $95 billion in 2018, with a trade deficit of $53 billion in China's favor however. In 2019, bilateral trade is set to cross $100 billion. In order to better tackle issues such as the trade deficit, both sides agreed to create a new dialogue mechanism. This mechanism will be co-chaired by Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua and Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, and would not only serve in resolving the trade deficit issue, but also to discuss new areas for enhancing trade, investment and services. An outstanding issue may remain even with the new mechanism in place, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is a proposed free-trade agreement led by China. India raised its concerns about RCEP during the summit as it could lead to the Indian market being flooded with even cheaper Chinese products. 

Altogether it seems it was a successful summit with both leaders reaching out to one another and willing to promote a friendly Sino-Indian relationship. The "Chennai Vision" (the city of Chennai being close to Mamallapuram), a vision to connect China and India through strategic communication, would be the beginning of a new era in the India-China relations, Modi said after the conclusion of the talks with Xi.

In fact, both leaders seemed to be so interested in appearing friendly, that a number of issues were not addressed or at least have not been recorded. Trade seemed to have been the only topic that delivered a concrete outcome. Meanwhile, the issue of whether the Chinese telecommunications equipment company Huawei could provide India’s 5G network was not discussed. China has been urging India to take an independent decision on Huawei's bid in India, while the United States asked its allies not to use Huawei equipment. 

Naturally, over the past few decades, China and India have managed to push their disputes into the background in order to cooperate with each other.

Also missing from the discussions between Modi and Xi was any substantive mention of their long-standing border dispute. The two sides are far from reaching any resolution of the dispute. The Kashmir issue, which directly affects China as it claims territory, and indirectly through its relationship with Pakistan, did not come up either. Nor did India’s main security headache, the terrorist threat emanating from Pakistan, China’s closest de facto ally and recipient of vast infrastructure investment.

India and China agreed to "remain sensitive to each other's concerns". Naturally, over the past few decades, China and India have managed to push their disputes into the background in order to cooperate with each other, most importantly on trade and investment, but they even started working together on security, in particular to fight regional terrorism.

The missing issues are a sign of both leaders’ attempt to show that they can get along despite their disputes. However, it remains to be seen if this is really the case or indeed just a facade. Not least, there is still deep-rooted suspicion, and relations were not long ago at a new low when the two countries’ armies almost clashed in a border standoff at the Doklam pass in 2017. Another issue that looms over the relationship between China and India is the Tibetan government-in-exile (in Dharamshala), which China does not recognize. Finally, China is increasingly seen to be encroaching on India’s sphere of influence, especially in the Indian Ocean. India has opposed China’s presence in the Indian Ocean and is also seeking like-minded partners in nations such as Australia, the U.S., and Japan (the so-called "Quad"). Given the number of issues and disputes in the Sino-Indian relationship, it is unlikely conflict can be prevented for the sake of trade. Another confrontation is likely to come.


Copyright : WANG ZHAO / POOL / AFP


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