Has the Wuhan Meeting “reset” the India-China Relations?

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On 27-28 April 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping met in Wuhan, Hubei province for the “Informal Meeting”. This was the second time Xi Jinping received any leader outside the capital. Coincidently, the first time it was also to received Prime Minister Modi in Xian. Wuhan has historical importance, in 1972, during Richard Nixon visit to China; Mao Zedong hosted him in Wuhan. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has called the visit as “a new milestone” in relations.

There are growing strategic concerns on both the sides. China is concerned about India not joining the Belt and Road Initiative, growing India-US relations and the cooperative efforts in the shape of Quad among-India, US, Australia and Japan. India is concerned about increasing Chinese foothold in the South Asian Region and the Indian Ocean Region, China’s stand on Indian membership of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) and the listing of Masood Azhar in the 1267 Committee of the UNSC.  Burgeoning trade deficit is also a matter of growing concern for India. Last year, India-China ties were strained over the 73 day stand-off at the tri-junction at the India-China-Bhutan. Finally, it ended with the ‘expeditious disengagement’ of the troops from both the sides. Against this background, the ‘informal meeting’ was held with an agenda to ‘reset’ the bilateral ties. It was the second meeting between the leaders since the Doklam stand-off. The last meeting took place in Xiamen, China in 2017.

Until now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping have met several times. In 2014 and 2015 their meeting was characterized as the “Hometown diplomacy”.[1]At present, Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are the interlocutors themselves unlike the earlier leadership under Hu Jintao where Premier Wen Jiabao was the interlocutor for the India-China relations with his counterpart former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Leaders on both the sides have the passion to improve the bilateral relations and the ‘informal meeting’ echoed this. 

 

The Outcome of the visit

The outcome of the visit is particularly important as it has laid out the framework for the bilateral relations. It provided both the leaders to exchange views on the long term and strategic issues and to impart fresh momentum to the bilateral relations. During the two day meeting both the leader met for one-on-one meeting six times.

The India-China boundary issue was discussed and the role played by the Special Representatives (SR) was acknowledged. Imparting strategic guidance to strengthen communications between the two militaries and build trust and mutual understanding in the management of border affairs was discussed. Additionally, they directed their militaries to implement various confidence-building measures agreed upon between the two sides, including the principle of mutual and equal security, and strengthen existing institutional arrangements and information sharing mechanism to prevent incidents in the border region. Issues of wider and overlapping regional and global interests were addressed. They agreed on their need to strengthen strategic communication through greater consultation on all matters of common interest. Notably, they recognised the common threat posed by terrorism and reiterated their condemnation to terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. They committed themselves to cooperate on counterterrorism.

It may be recalled, the issue of setting up hotlines between two headquarters has been discussed for long but the modalities could not be finalized. The proposal was mooted in 2013 at the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) between India and China aimed at maintaining peace along the Line of Actual Control, which was established in 1993.[2] Subsequently, after the meeting, the two sides agreed to set the hotlines between the two militaries.[3] At present, there is no mechanism under which both the countries can talk and clear their apprehensions in case there is any tension at the border area. The hotlines are believed to provide a platform for such discussion. Further, both the countries also agreed to undertake joint India-China project in Afghanistan;[4] they are interested in the stability in the region and Afghanistan in particular.[5]

The issue of balance and sustainable trade and investments was discussed. The trade deficit and possibility of export of Indian agricultural products along with pharmaceutical to China was mentioned. The existing mechanism i.e. Strategic Economic Dialogue and Joint Economic Group was entrusted to deal with these issues. On the cultural exchange, the leaders decided that the ‘trust and understanding’ developed between the two leaders should transcend to the public and there should be greater cultural exchanges.

Conclusion

There was no joint statement or agreement of the meeting; it was high on symbolism. On the sidelines of 2017, SCO meeting both the leaders had agreed that the differences should not escalate into dispute. The ‘informal meeting’ can be seen as a step further wherein both the leaders discussed issues in a larger context.

The motive behind the meeting was to open the ‘strategic communication’ channel at the highest level. The meeting has been successful in doing so. The armies of both the countries held Border Personnel Meeting during which both sides agreed to maintain peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control, besides agreeing to work on the additional confidence-building measure.[6]

Many issues of concerns/ differences were not discussed. However, one cannot discount the fact that it was an extraordinary move by the Indian Prime Minister to take an initiative to visit China twice in six weeks (The Indian Prime Minister is scheduled to visit China in June for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit).The ‘informal meeting’ has given an upward trajectory to the bilateral relations but it is premature to predict that it has ‘reset’ the ties completely.

 

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Author: Dr. Teshu Singh