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Modi and Xi at Mamallapuram
Modi and Xi at Mamallapuram|Photo credit: Lowy Institute
Write-In

“Chennai Connect”: Not Much to Take Away

Important issues remained unresolved between India and China in Mamallapuram

TP Sreenivasan

TP Sreenivasan

Looking for “take-aways” is a normal exercise of experts after all bilateral or multilateral meetings. After formal meetings, what is said or not said in the joint communiques give a clear indication of successes and failures.

But in the case of informal meetings, it is more difficult to make an assessment by reading the body language, picking up a few words spoken to the press and statements read out by either side without the endorsement of the other.

With the proliferation of one-to-one meetings among top leaders, the archives must have become thinner in most foreign offices. What the principals share with their sherpas may be sketchy and biased, making the minutes recorded from memory incomplete.

The general public and even diplomats, who have to follow up decisions have only impressions and stray comments about what happened at the first informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping in Wuhan last year. The message conveyed by both the leaders was that there was a “reset” of relations and that the Wuhan spirit had begun to transform bilateral relations.

While there was no evidence of any change in Chinese attitudes, India played down the events in Dokalam, became less vehement in its objection to the Belt Road Initiative and let the anniversary of the Dalai Lama pass without official participation. In the case of the Chennai Connect, the achievements are as nebulous as in Wuhan.

The only heartening thing was that the assessment of both the leaders of the summit was positive, India being more positive than China.

“The Wuhan Spirit had given new momentum and trust to our ties. A new era of cooperation will begin today through the Chinese Connect,” beamed PM Modi, while President echoed the sentiment in a more restrained manner.

The optics too were perfect as watching two adversaries taking in Pallava history and art for hours together all by themselves with even interpreters at arm’s length was a feast to the eyes.

The ruins and scenery lent an attractive backdrop for the great photo opportunity. But the hope being expressed that the summit will usher in a new era in India-China relations does not seem to have any real basis. The words like “candid conversations like friends and heart-to-heart discussions on bilateral matters” are not as sweet as they sound.

The first among the “take-aways” is a new mechanism to deal with trade, investment and related issues, a typical solution offered by the Chinese to many problems, including the intractable border question.

This was characterised by Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale as “visible progress.” The Chinese have a long term approach to problems and they normally do not give any time frame.

Interestingly, President Xi set a 100-year plan to cement relations between the two ancient civilisations. This is a comparatively short period in the Chinese mind, but not very relevant to a fast changing world. India cannot wait for a hundred years to resolve the number of issues that plague the relationship.

The repeated assertion that Kashmir was not raised by either side is not very good news either. This means that there is no prospect of any change in the Chinese policy of supporting Pakistan, particularly, the position that the issue should be resolved on the basis of the UN resolutions, which are anathema to India. Freezing the Chinese position will not lead to any forward movement in their attitude to the matter in the international fora.

The takeaway on the most important border question is a mere reiteration that the talks should be resumed.

The MEA release eloquently talks of “efforts to arrive at a mutually agreed framework for a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution” on the boundary question. No time frame is even contemplated. We also heard the Indian side mentioning the border issue as a remnant of colonial times, a key Chinese argument to change the traditional border.

Increasing defence cooperation through exchange of visits and discussions is a silver lining, but the present atmosphere of distrust and Chinese objection to military exercises in Arunachal Pradesh, no practical measures are likely to emerge. India becoming a close defence partner of the United States itself is a provocation for China.

Greater understanding of the concerns of each other on terrorism is definitely a takeaway, but the Chinese support to Pakistan in various areas is not likely to be diluted even when Pakistan uses terrorism as a state policy. In the Chinese eyes, terrorism is perpetrated by global terrorist groups and elements in China itself and not cross-border terrorism, which is our primary concern.

Joint efforts to combat climate change and growth of people to people contacts will benefit both the countries, but they are like motherhood, which can never be in question.

What will remain in the minds of the people of the two countries are the optics of the meeting and the warmth of the hospitality lavished on the Chinese President, who was “overwhelmed” by it.

The very fact that he found it worthwhile to spend two days, listening to the exploits of the Pallavas and enjoying the sculptures of the cave temples and Bharatanatyam and Kathakali was heart warming.

PM Modi and President Xi appeared engrossed in each other and the general public in both countries will believe that these gentlemen will not hurl nuclear weapons at each other. They have also agreed that “differences will be managed prudently and not be allowed to become disputes” in the future.

The annual informal summit format has come to stay and the President has given the credit of suggesting it to the Prime Minister.

The journey from the “Wuhan spirit” to the “Chennai Connect” was not very smooth as none of the Chinese actions during the period had the imprint of the Wuhan spirit, as their actions on Kashmir were clearly adversarial.

The way to the next informal summit in a city in China will hopefully be more smooth, given the initiatives taken in Mamallapuram.

The international situation being in a flux, most major nations are reluctant to take on long term commitments. Most of them have become swing states, keeping an eye on the shifts and turns in equations and alliances emerging rapidly.

Wuhan and Sochi were initiated by PM Modi when he was unsure of the strategic cooperation with the US. Even after the bromance between him and President Trump in Houston, it has become crucial for him to have an equation with Presidents Putin and Xi.

All of them are keeping their options open, and, therefore, the number of “takeaways” will be few in the short term.

The best that can be achieved is a peep into the minds of both friends and adversaries and a certain amount of trust, which may be of benefit in the future.