Revisiting the 2nd Modi-Xi Informal Summit

Informal summits give the two leaders space and flexibility to better recalibrate the direction of bilateral relations.
by Swaran Singh and Zhong Ai
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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gives Chinese President Xi Jinping a guided tour of the Group of Monuments at Mahabalipuram, India, Oct. 11, 2019. Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the southern Indian city of Chennai on Friday. (Xinhua/Wang Ye)

With much of the immediate media coverage of the second China-India informal summit subsiding, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met once again at the 11th summit of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) in Brazil’s capital city Brasilia on November 14, 2019.

It is important to note that given the nature of the informal summits – that are neither driven by any fixed agenda nor geared towards any specific outcomes – it is usually several months after their meeting that experts begin to decipher various “understandings” that the two leaders may have clinched in their casual, open-ended talks on providing strategic direction for their mutual policies and joint initiatives.

The two important decisions – providing strategic direction for their armed forces to maintain peace in border regions and launching the “two-plus-one” model of joint initiatives in third countries – were not known for several months after their first informal summit in Wuhan. So two months after the Mamallapuram summit can be an appropriate time to review the implications of adding the “Chennai Connect” to their “Wuhan Spirit” that is believed to have reset China-India ties. Moreover, it is time to elucidate the unique style and efficacy of this informal summit in addressing their emerging new challenges.

To begin with, the Mamallapuram summit has come to be known for setting up a High-Level Economic and Trade Dialogue. This was seen as an upgrade to their existing Strategic Economic Dialogue. This upgrade was considered an attempt to bring in a political perspective in addressing India’s concerns about a large continued trade deficit. Since then two events have injected energy into their efforts in addressing their trade deficit.

During the second China International Import Expo in Shanghai from November 5 to 10, Indian participants signed contracts worth millions of U.S. dollars which are expected to boost India’s exports to China and help mitigate their long-standing trade deficit. India’s agri-business vendors were especially successful in finalizing contracts for exporting Indian products like henna powder, chilies, value-added tea and drumstick leaves powder to China. Other than helping in mitigating the trade deficit, these agri-business exports can help India address its agrarian crisis. Indeed, the first half of this financial year (namely, from April to September 2019) had already seen India exporting US$200 million worth of these products to China. In addition, at the Brasilia BRICS summit in November, the two sides discussed cooperation on addressing issues regarding mutual trade, investment and services.

Deeper than that and in tune with China’s Belt and Road Initiative to build cultural and civilizational connectivity, the second informal summit between the two leaders at India’s ancient town of Mamallapuram saw them agreeing to rejuvenate spiritual, historical, cultural and ecological linkages. Archeological evidence shows that 2,000 years ago there were links between Mamallapuram and China. Recognizing their ancient trade links, the two sides decided to establish sister-state/province relations between India’s state Tamil Nadu and China’s Fujian Province.

The two sides also plan to set up an academy to study these ancient linkages and promote their contemporary maritime partnership. So, in addition to holding parliamentary exchanges at the apex, the two sides will conduct various activities to promote civilizational links including China holding an International Xuanzang Forum to promote studies related to eminent Chinese monk Xuanzang who traveled across India during the 7th century.

At their informal meeting at Mamallapuram, the two leaders agreed on the final list of 70 events to be held during 2020-2021 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the establishment of their diplomatic ties. For instance, both sides agreed on holding joint cultural performances at border posts, visits of Indian naval ships to China, and Indian mid-level tri-service delegation to China to strengthen their mutual trust and understanding.

This shows how an informal summit can be a potent way to elucidate respective intentions, offer proposals, and recalibrate overall direction for both states. For instance, just as the “two-plus-one” model of the “Wuhan Spirit” had created a model of China-India economic partnership without India joining the Belt and Road Initiative, the “Chennai Connect” can open avenues for their maritime cooperation without India joining the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road. Informal summits give the two leaders space and flexibility to better recalibrate the direction of bilateral relations.

This increasing pragmatism has, of course, also brought some new challenges. India, for instance, chose not to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and explained it in the name of protecting its domestic industries, alluding to an enormous trade deficit with most RCEP member countries. This was followed by the cancellation of the India-China Business Council meeting as Chinese delegates were not issued visas in time. 

But, without doubt, both sides have learned how to control damage in managing their differences. In the spirit of building consultative mechanisms and confidence building initiatives, this innovative genre of informal summits carries deeper connotations far beyond the glare of immediate headlines celebrating their perceptions and event management skills in projecting bonhomie. This has implications far beyond their own territorial boundaries. Xi and Modi have already held two informal summits and announced their third one next year, indicating that such informal summits are becoming a new normal way of frequent interactions at the very apex, to provide strategic direction for the two upwardly mobile large societies.

Professor Swaran Singh is chairman of the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Ms. Zhong Ai, author of Role of Second Strike in No-First Use Doctrine: A Study of China and India, is currently pursuing her doctoral degree at the same university.