During the run-up to the Wuhan summit, the first “informal” summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in April 2018, several measures were taken by both governments to ensure the smoothest setting for talks. From the moment preparations began in February, both New Delhi and Beijing were careful to avoid language on issues that could become irritants — Kashmir, Tibet, terrorism, trade deficit, the Belt and Road Initiative and Indo-Pacific partnerships.
The differences to the run-up to the Chennai summit should be studied closer in order to build more accurate expectations from the meet. In February 2018, according to a leaked memo, newly-appointed Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale had reminded senior government officials that according to policy, none should attend the series of functions planned to mark the day the Dalai Lama fled to India from Tibet in 1959, or grace public events hosted by Tibetan community leadership, seen as a precursor to building better ‘optics’ with Beijing.
The government also cancelled a global parliamentarians conference due to be held in Delhi in April 2018. In February 2018, China too took a big step away from its traditional backing of Pakistan, by supporting the Financial Action Task Force decision to “greylist” Pakistan for its failure to check terror financing, and to initiate steps on reducing the whopping $60 billion trade deficit between the two countries.
A series of carefully coordinated and choreographed visits followed, with New Delhi and Beijing exchanging high-level visitors including Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan, then Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman leading up to a visit by then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj who announced the Wuhan summit in a joint appearance with Chinese FM Wang Yi.
The contrast to the preparations for the Chennai summit could not be more obvious. The official announcement came just two days before Mr. Xi’s arrival, which is unprecedented for a visit of this importance. It is curious that the two sides didn’t attempt a joint announcement in Delhi, while Chinese Vice-Minister Luo Zhaohui was in town last week.
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar did make a preparatory visit to Beijing in August, but it was over-run by having to explain the government’s move on Article 370. Despite his reassurances, Beijing went ahead and pushed for an informal United Nations Security Council meet to discuss the move, a first in many decades.
China followed that up with FM Wang’s criticism of the move in his speech at the UN General Assembly in September. Another key difference is the Trump-Modi equation, which was under considerable strain pre-Wuhan, especially over Harley Davidson motorbike tariffs, and has vastly improved post-Houston, and this is being factored in by Beijing as well.
“I think, more than the optics, the situation for both countries is different this time around,” says former National Security Adviser and foremost China expert Shiv Shankar Menon. “When Wuhan happened, both China and India had other preoccupations — China was worried by the trade war with the U.S. and India was heading in to election season. Neither wanted to deal with another standoff [like Doklam]. This time, the desire for the talks isn’t as mutual.”
As a result, China’s raising Kashmir is sharper than the past, and linked both to its support for Pakistan as well as implications for Chinese-occupied parts of PoK (Aksai Chin), and the statement by Mr. Xi and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday prompted a protest from the MEA.
Analysts and former diplomats point out that the invitation to Mr. Khan itself, in the same week as the Chennai summit, casts a doubt on Beijing’s intentions to “hyphenate” China’s ties with India and Pakistan.
Adding to the bad optics were a flurry of negative stories that officials on both sides blamed each other for. The Chinese MoFA was forced to issue a clarification over its decision to deny the Indian Embassy in Beijing its chosen venue for Gandhi Jayanti celebrations because of a space conflict with China’s 70th anniversary celebrations.
The government’s decision to hold major mountain combat exercises Him Vijay in Arunachal Pradesh was protested by China. India then reportedly protested comments by the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan about Kashmir, and so on. Instead of Mr. Xi making a “stand-alone” visit to India, as Mr. Modi did with Wuhan, the Chinese President will fly to Nepal next where BRI projects, including a railway line between both countries, are sure to create new concerns for India.
Analysts say that while none of these ‘hiccups’ denote any break from stated policies on both sides, they could have been avoided.
“The atmospherics have clearly been much worse before Chennai [summit] compared to the Wuhan summit, and differences have resurfaced in a fairly serious manner between both sides recently. For the leaders, the challenge now is to impart and restore a sense of stability to the relationship,” advised former Ambassador to China Ashok Kantha.
Some diplomats say the differences in preparations cropped up as early as May this year, when New Delhi had proposed Varanasi as the venue for the summit. Then Ambassador Mr. Luo had scoped possible locations there, including the boat ride on the Ganga and the ‘aarti’ along the Ghats that Mr. Modi had accompanied French President Emmanuel Macron and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to in the past.
However, the Chinese government said that Mr. Xi’s plane would be too large to fit the runway at the Lal Bahadur Shastri airport, and asked for alternatives, which led the government to Chennai and Mamallapuram. Officials are hoping that a similar spirit of accommodation will ensure the upcoming summit takes off successfully, despite the hitches in the run up to it.