Wuhan revisited

Issue 02, 2019

Wuhan revisited

Gautam Bambawale |author

Issue 02, 2019

The informal summit held between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping completes a year

India and China, have contributed the concept of “informal summits” to global diplomatic practice. The seminal Wuhan Informal Summit held between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping in April 2018, is a perfect example of this. The summit showed that leadership interaction between two countries could be entirely at the informal level without necessitating any of the bells and whistles that international protocol demands.

Such informal meetings have, in the recent past, been a small part of a larger formal visit by a state leader. However, the meeting in Wuhan, was one of the first which was entirely informal in its setting, in approach and in its implementation. The reason the two countries agreed to such an “Informal Leaders Meeting” was to give ample time and space to the leaders to talk to each other on topics which they decided themselves.

There was some coordination on the broad subjects to be covered beforehand, but the leaders were free to decide how long to dwell on any one subject or in what direction a particular conversation was to be taken. While this can even be true of more formal meetings with a set agenda, it is the hallmark of an informal meeting. Hence, India and China, which gave the world the Panchsheel or five principles of peaceful coexistence in the 1950s, have once again contributed to diplomatic practice in the 21st century.

Indian PM Narendra Modi and President of China Xi Jinping take a boat ride at the East Lake, in Wuhan, China on April 28, 2018

The Wuhan Informal Summit between the Indian Prime Minister and Chinese President was also strong on what is described by some as “strategic communication”. It was an exercise in understanding the other side’s point of view, its dreams, its goals and objectives, its assessments and its strategies.

Starting with each country’s civilisational ethic, norms and traditions which shape the reality of today, the two leaders also spoke to one another of the hopes, ambitions and desires of their people. This translated into mutual understanding of the other’s policies, both domestic as well as foreign, the nature of geo-economics and geo-politics, how the two can work together in larger multilateral forums as well as an acknowledgement of the areas where the two sides have differences of opinion and positions.

Such a clear, frank and direct exchange of views would perhaps not have been possible in more formal settings where leaders normally speak from prepared texts. Informal settings are more amenable to producing candid views and sharing of confidences. So, president Xi and PM Modi have been trailblazers in setting new diplomatic precedents and norms.

PM Modi and President Jinping during a meeting at the East Lake Guest House, in Wuhan, China

That the India – China Wuhan Informal Summit has been successful in returning the bilateral relationship to an even keel has become increasingly obvious over the past year. Therein lies its significance as well as its success. The return of the India – China relationship to its previous equilibrium is indeed a major contribution of President Xi and PM Modi.

What have been the results following the Wuhan Informal Summit? First, ministerial meetings have resumed between the two countries with India’s External Affairs and Defence Ministers Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman, having visited China and in return China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, Public Security Minister Zhao Kezhi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi having been to India in 2018. While our ministers went to China mainly to attend meetings of the Shanghai Corporation Organisation (SCO), both had an important bilateral segment to their visits.

In fact, the Wuhan Summit was formally announced to public opinion by EAM Sushma Swaraj and Chinese FM Wang Yi at their interaction with the media following their bilateral interaction in Beijing. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman too had a very important bilateral with her counterpart Chinese minister which led to a thaw in defence and military cooperation between our countries.

PM Modi and President Jinping hold a meeting in Hubei Provincial Museum, Wuhan, China

The visit to India of China’s Public Security Minister and interaction with Home Minister Rajnath Singh has led to new grounds for cooperation between India and China in law enforcement, counter terrorism and intelligence sharing. This will prove to be of particular significance in the years ahead. In December 2018, the Foreign Ministers of India and China held their first meeting of the high level mechanism on people-to-people exchanges which has been identified as the weak link in our bilateral ties. Good political and economic exchanges need to be backed up by higher flows of ordinary citizens between our countries.

Second, military exchanges too have resumed with interactions between our Eastern Army Command and China’s Western Theater Command. Since these are the commanders and troops which man significant sections of our common frontier, it is important for them to meet each other and attempt to understand the workings of the other side including how they react to situations on the ground. What is even more important is the resumption of naval cooperation as was seen recently with the visit of two Indian Navy ships to Qingdao this April to participate in China’s International Fleet Review.

Third, India’s trade deficit with China has narrowed even while trade has continued its expansion. However, more needs to be done especially in the export of Indian pharma products and software to China. If we are able to sell these items to China, only then will there be a basic change in the deficit picture. To tackle the trade imbalance, India must focus on getting more Chinese tourists to India as well as on ensuring that Chinese firms invest in greenfield ventures in our country.

PM Modi and President Jinping visit Hubei Museum in Wuhan, China

Fourth, given the directives from the informal summit at Wuhan, it is important that the India – China boundary has been relatively quiet this summer as a result of the understanding between PM Modi and President Xi. This has enabled India to focus on its own internal priority of a general election.

Fifth, the fact that India and China have joined hands in training Afghan diplomats with a view to contributing to that Asian nation’s progress and stability is indeed significant. Finally, India has become an active member of the SCO, participating in all its activities, including joint military exercises. Such collaboration provides India important partners including in the Central Asian Region.

Whether a second informal summit between the leaders of India and China will be held later this year is for the two sides to decide. Be that as it may, it appears to most observers that the “Informal Summit” option for leadership level meetings seems to be here to stay.

Gautam Bambawale

Gautam Bambawale is an Indian diplomat and has served as the Indian Ambassador to Bhutan, Pakistan and China. He is currently a distinguished professor at Symbiosis International University, Pune. Bambawale is a subject expert on India's foreign policy in relation with Pakistan, China and the Indo-Pacific region.
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