Cautionary notes for Wuhan

As a vantage point in Nepal, Mount Everest is an important symbol for India and China. What is not well known is the mountain’s contribution to the term “summit” to describe meetings between world leaders seeking to resolve monumental issues between them.

It was in the 1950s that former U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill used the term, calling for a “summit of nations” to deal with the Cold War, even as an attempt to scale Mount Everest, which had captured the headlines, was under way. Churchill’s coinage of the term as well as his recommendation became a part of history when U.S. President John F. Kennedy met Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for direct talks.

History shows, the success of such grand summitry is mixed. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares for his “informal summit” with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan in China later this week, it would be instructive to look at the reasons why not all summits, including the Kennedy-Khrushchev Vienna summit of 1961, have borne fruit.

Nehru and Zhou Enlai

According to historian David Reynolds, summit-level diplomacy, or the need for issues to be resolved through personal talks between leaders, came into its own in the 20th century because of three reasons: the advent of air travel which allowed meetings to be planned at short notice; weapons of mass destruction that raised the stakes and urgency of summits; and instant mass media, which make such summits a spectacle. In terms of India-China ties, it is worth remembering that when the first Nehru-Zhou Enlai summit was held in Delhi in 1954, China did not even have an aircraft to fly in its Premier. An Air India flight was sent to bring him to Delhi. The summit in 1960, held after the Dalai Lama fled to India, turned bitter after talks on the boundary issue proved inconclusive and Zhou decided to hold a press conference at Rashtrapati Bhavan. The press conference turned acrimonious, and this time he and his entourage left on an Ilyushin aircraft, newly acquired by China. The India-China war followed in two years.

Mr. Modi could look to his own record in the last few years to glean a few lessons. The first is that holding summits such as the one in Wuhan are necessitated when engagement at other levels has failed to resolve outstanding issues, and, therefore, must not be tied down by too much pageantry and expectations.

Despite meetings at every level in the past, it is clear that ties have slipped, beginning with the military stand-off in Chumar, Ladakh taking centrestage right from the moment Mr. Xi landed in Gujarat, in September 2014. Extensive talks alongside the Sabarmati, accompanied by cultural performances, failed to lighten the atmosphere and ties went south after Mr. Xi left. Mr. Modi then reached out to the U.S. to announce a “joint vision” for the Indo-Pacific, while Mr. Xi went to Islamabad and launched the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This time in Wuhan, Mr. Modi and Mr. Xi should avoid unnecessary photo opportunities and public displays full of expectations and instead focus on the talks.

Equally important at a summit is to resist the urge to grandstand. Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf brought down the Agra summit (2001) with his press conference for editors even as talks with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was then Prime Minister, were on. Mr. Modi’s visit to Nepal in 2014 was a success bilaterally, but his reaching out to the public as well as his unsuccessful proposal to address a public rally in Janakpur were met with deep misgivings by Kathmandu.

Keeping it bilateral

It is also important to keep the conversation more broad based, while allowing more concrete outcomes to be left to ministerial, official and working visits. This would not only stop the inevitable ‘sizing up’ by the media on ‘who got more and who got less’ but also set the course for positive engagements in the future.

Summits are more likely to break ground on bilateral issues than on issues that involve a third country or a multilateral forum. As a result, a common understanding on boundary negotiations and rectifying the trade imbalance talks at Wuhan (and the next scheduled meeting in Qingdao in June on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Summit summit) would be of greater help before launching into bold agreements such as those on the Belt and Road Initiative, the CPEC, Nuclear Suppliers Group membership or UN terror designations.

Finally, it is necessary to fire-wall processes launched by the leaders from bilateral and domestic minefields. In the India-Pakistan context, the Composite Dialogue Process launched by I.K. Gujral in the 1990s created a default template to return to — used by the Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh governments until 2008.

The Rajiv Gandhi-Li Peng summit of 1988 paved the way for the 1993 Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control, which holds even today. It was this immunity, channelled by Mr. Modi and Mr. Xi, that ensured that Doklam didn’t escalate into something more difficult to reverse.

As Mr. Modi and Mr. Xi try to seek a better future for India-China relations, they should keep in mind Kennedy’s famous words, after the Khrushchev visit to the U.S.: “It is far better that we meet at the summit than at the brink.But let us remember that assurances of future talks are not assurances of future success or agreement.”

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Printable version | Nov 23, 2021 10:39:16 PM |

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