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Modi-Xi bonhomie to be tested by ‘irritants’, but global pressures may yet prompt tighter embrace

By Kunal Purohit

Published: 7:00am, 8 October, 2019


  • The Indian and Chinese leaders are expected to meet this weekend for their second informal summit in little more than a year

  • Though military drills and Kashmir threaten to sour the event, wider geopolitical challenges could push the pair closer together


Xi and Modi in the Indian city of Ahmedabad in September 2014. Photo: AP

Hectic preparations are under way in the southern Indian coastal town of Mamallapuram ahead of an expected two-day informal summit this weekend between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.


Invitations have been sent out for ceremonial dinners, restrictions on residents have been announced, the town is being spruced up, and eight ethnic Tibetans have been arrested to prevent them from staging protests over Beijing’s policies.

But a shroud of “irritants” now threatens to engulf the meeting. In the last week a string of diplomatic disputes has emerged between the two countries, and with just four days to go, neither nation had yet been willing to formally announce the summit as of Monday night, though the Indian government did begin registration procedures for local journalists.

In contrast, when Xi and Modi met last April in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, former Indian minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj and her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi held a joint address in Beijing a few days before the event to announce it, and Swaraj then met Xi the next day.


Indian army personnel keep watch at Bumla pass at the India-China border in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo: AFP

The delay this time has given rise to speculation of fresh problems that could be creasing up the foreheads of Indian and Chinese officials. There have been indicators already.


India’s plans to stage land and air mountain combat war exercises in Arunachal Pradesh, its northeastern region to which China still lays claim as part of southern Tibet, have ruffled feathers in the Chinese establishment. The Indian Air Force has even reopened a strategically crucial airstrip in the region meant to be used solely for military purposes. Reports in the Indian media have claimed Beijing raised strong objections to the exercises and that vice-foreign minister Luo Zhaohui took the issue to India’s foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale at a meeting last week.

Sources said the Chinese were viewing with suspicion not just the exercises but also their timing – on the eve of the summit.

Also last week, China-India relations suffered a minor controversy when it was reported that the Indian embassy had been denied permission to hold its traditional celebrations on October 2 in a Beijing public park to mark the birth anniversary of spiritual and political leader Mahatma Gandhi. The Chinese embassy in India hurriedly put out a statement saying the denial was due to technical issues related to Beijing’s celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic.



Chinese ambassador to Pakistan Yao Jing also last week said Beijing would stand by Pakistan in its dispute with New Delhi over the future of Kashmir, which was in August stripped of the autonomy the region had enjoyed for seven decades. India reportedly “sought clarification” from China and lodged a “strong protest” against Yao’s comments, claiming they contradicted Beijing’s prior public statements which said the Kashmir issue was a bilateral matter for India and Pakistan.

India-China relations have been caught in choppy waters since Delhi’s decision to place Kashmir under its direct control. Incensed by the move, Pakistan has since sought to rely on ally China in its efforts to elicit international attention and pressure Delhi.


China, much to India’s displeasure, pushed for an informal United Nations Security Council meeting on the issue, and foreign minister Wang even addressed the dispute in his speech at the UN General Assembly.


When Xi and Modi met last April, former Indian minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj and her Chinese counterpart Wang Yi held a joint address in Beijing a few days before the event to announce it. Photo: AFP

Indian foreign-policy makers are now anxious about a three-day visit to China by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan that starts on Monday night. The trip will be Khan’s third to China this year and comes as he tries to garner global support for censuring India over Kashmir.

All this, coupled with the intriguing fact that Xi will reportedly only be at the summit for about 24 hours this weekend, has prompted many to wonder whether any breakthroughs in ties are possible.


Dr Geeta Kochhar, assistant professor of Chinese studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said these “irritants” would not derail the summit but could hamper its outcomes.

“That’s because such irritants have always been a part of India-China relations. However, there were expectations that this informal summit may result in a breakthrough on some issues. The possibility of that happening, now, seems distant,” she said.


The bonhomie between Modi and Xi that emanated from their meeting last year led many to hail a so-called ‘Wuhan spirit’. Photo: AFP

However, geopolitical pressures alone could still push the two countries into a tighter embrace, Kochhar added. China had been reeling from an economic slowdown due in part to its tariff war with the United States. India meanwhile realised its relations with the US may be erratic under the presidency of Donald Trump and closer China ties could therefore be necessary.

“Hence, geopolitical and geo-economic reasons have pressured India and China to cooperate,” Kochhar said. “Even before the Wuhan summit, there was a sense that the two countries had to cooperate in order to tackle global challenges better.”

The bonhomie between Modi and Xi that emanated from their meeting last year led many to hail a so-called “Wuhan spirit”, which they claimed was symbolic of a new direction in ties.

But with the mysterious silence regarding the announcement of this year’s summit continuing as of Monday night, the “Wuhan spirit” may not be enough to make progress.

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