As Modi lands in South Africa, possible meet with Xi to be watched most closely

Speculation grows as PM Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping have many occasions to spend time together at BRICS events this week

August 21, 2023 08:44 pm | Updated August 22, 2023 06:55 am IST - NEW DELHI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping. File

Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping. File | Photo Credit: PTI

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi lands in South Africa on Tuesday to attend the XVth BRICS summit in Johannesburg, all eyes are on whether he will hold talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in an effort to resolve the three-year-old stand-off at the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

On August 21, speculation over the meeting grew, after Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra said that the PM’s itinerary was still being worked out, but didn’t explicitly deny the possibility that the two leaders would meet on the sidelines of various BRICS events, beginning with a Leaders’ Retreat on Tuesday evening. Reports last week, when LAC commanders held talks on two occasions and issued a cordial joint statement as they sought a breakthrough on issues like disengagement in remaining Ladakh sectors, de-escalation, and patrolling rights, had also fuelled the speculation.

Explained | Why is the BRICS summit important for India?

“The host country South Africa has invited a large number of guest countries, besides of course BRICS members (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) who will be present there. The PM’s schedule, in terms of bilateral meetings with those leaders who would be present in South Africa is still being developed,” said Mr. Kwatra, when asked at a briefing whether PM Modi would have a scheduled bilateral with President Xi, which would be the first such meeting between them since the two leaders met at another BRICS summit in Brazil in 2019. Mr. Kwatra also side-stepped a question on what would be the messaging if the two leaders failed to hold a bilateral meeting in South Africa.

Since the LAC stand-off and killings at Galwan, there have been talks between Foreign Ministers, Defence Ministers and NSA-level officials of both countries, but PM Modi and President Xi have not sat down for talks, or spoken over the phone. In September 2022, the two leaders stood next to each other and attended a Leaders’ Lunch at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, but didn’t hold formal talks. In November 2022, the two leaders were seen talking at a G-20 banquet in Bali after PM Modi walked up to Mr. Xi and “exchanged greetings”, but it was only in July this year, a full eight months later that the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) admitted that Mr. Modi and Mr. Xi had discussed boundary issues, after the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) inserted a line into a readout of a meeting between NSA Ajit Doval and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi about a “consensus” reached between the leaders. 

The MEA’s reticence, chalked up to political pressure against a deal with China back home, could mean that the two leaders could be selective about releasing information about any meetings they hold in South Africa. In the run-up to the BRICS summit leaders of the Opposition Congress party and Shiv Sena have issued statements questioning “land taken by China” in the past few years, including one from Congress MP Rahul Gandhi in Ladakh, where he said locals were affected by “land lost”. 

Apart from the LAC issue, any bilateral India-China meeting will be important in resolving issues over the G-20 Joint Declaration statement, which China and Russia are blocking at present, to be released at the G-20 summit less than three weeks away.

PM Modi will land at Johannesburg’s Waterkloof Air Force Base on Tuesday afternoon, and attend a BRICS Business Forum Leaders’ dialogue followed by the BRICS Leaders’ Retreat, with the presidents of Brazil, China and South Africa. Russian President Vladimir Putin will not attend the summit, appearing via video conference, given concerns over an International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant against him.

On Wednesday, Mr. Modi will be part of a day-long BRICS summit with the other leaders, and on Thursday, will attend the BRICS-Africa outreach and BRICS-Plus meetings with more than 50 leaders from Africa and other parts of the Global South. Mr. Kwatra said India had “positive intent and an open mind” on the subject of BRICS expansion, with the South African host releasing a list of 23 countries that have now formally applied for BRICS membership. “This is a testament to the vitality and influence of the BRICS cooperation mechanism,” President Xi wrote in an op-ed piece on Monday, as he landed in South Africa for a State visit ahead of the summit.

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