Limits of summit-style diplomacy

While the excitement over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s engagements in the U.S. is high, the expectations from his meeting with President Barack Obama are lower

September 27, 2014 12:42 am | Updated April 20, 2016 06:35 am IST

NO PUSH: The bonhomie between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping failed to achieve the change in the India-China discourse that Mr. Modi had hoped for in his "INCH towards MILES" analogy. Picture shows them on the Sabarmati river front.

NO PUSH: The bonhomie between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping failed to achieve the change in the India-China discourse that Mr. Modi had hoped for in his "INCH towards MILES" analogy. Picture shows them on the Sabarmati river front.

From the very beginning of his tenure when he invited SAARC leaders to New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it clear that he intended to pursue summit-style diplomacy: the idea that two nations can resolve their issues when their leaders sit face-to-face. The Prime Minister had reason for such confidence. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, for example, he had single-handedly attracted foreign investment to the State, winning invitations from China and Japan that were only accorded to heads of state. When he took oath of office in the presence of subcontinental leaders, summit-style diplomacy was endorsed, given that Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka among others had serious issues to resolve with India. Mr. Modi was able to transform the atmosphere through bilateral meetings with those leaders.

The Prime Minister then met other leaders at a gruelling pace, flying to Brazil for the BRICS summit where he had one-on-one meetings with nearly a dozen leaders. Each meeting was a first and the leaders said they were impressed with him. Chinese President Xi Jinping later said, “I didn’t feel like this was the first time we met. It was like meeting an old friend.” The emphasis was clearly on Mr. Modi the person and not Mr. Modi the Prime Minister, as he personalised relations with countries in an unprecedented way, exchanging, for instance, gifts with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for their mothers.

Testing times

But four months on and several bilateral meetings later, Mr. Modi’s summit-style diplomacy is facing testing times. While his visit to Nepal was hailed a success, his meeting with Prime Minister Sushil Koirala did not yield two agreements that had been billed as “deliverables”: the Power Trading Agreement and the Project Development Agreement. If this was a disappointment, it was a minor one given the great response his visit generated combined with his speech in Parliament.

Similiarly, his visit to Japan yielded a massive investment commitment of $35 billion; yet, despite his close interaction with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (referred to as a “bromance”), the visit failed to see the big takeaway — the signing of the nuclear agreement between the two countries. Mr. Modi and Mr. Abe spent a considerable amount of time in Kyoto and then in an official meeting along with delegations in Tokyo, but were unable to close the considerable gap between Japan’s expectations and what India was willing to give by way of assurances on nuclear testing. While this was a tough challenge, many including Mr. Modi had believed that it could be achieved during the visit. It was even understood that his Japan visit had been put off twice so as to allow time for nuclear negotiations. Meeting her Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida in Myanmar in August, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had told him that India was “very keen” to conclude the civil nuclear deal, and officials as well as background negotiators were confident that the final push to deliver it would come from the personal chemistry between Mr. Modi and Mr. Abe. The nuclear deal wasn’t the only expected “deliverable” that didn’t come through. An agreement to upgrade the strategic dialogue to the 2+2 format, a deal for US-2 amphibian aircraft, and the commercialisation of an agreement between the Department of Atomic Energy and Toyota Tsusho for exporting rare earth minerals didn’t make the “last mile” in negotiations. In a scathing article in Japan Times titled “Showmanship trumps substance during Modi visit,” analyst Jeff Kingston called the visit a “much-touted summit that was an inconclusive washout.” Indian commentators were much more charitable, and accepted that many of the outcomes would be delivered in the months and years to come. Some consolation came from Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s visit to sign the nuclear deal for Uranium imports.

The next test came shortly after, with Mr. Xi’s visit. The bonhomie on the first day of his visit and the picture of the two leaders sitting side-by-side on a swing in Ahmedabad failed to achieve the change in the India-China discourse that Mr. Modi had hoped for in his “INCH towards MILES” or “India-China towards Millenium of Exceptional Synergy” analogy. Instead, the discourse was overrun by the incidents at the border, and an effective stand down of the troops could not be achieved despite the two leaders spending hours in conversation, both by the Sabarmati Riverfront and in Delhi’s official Hyderabad House.

Some of the problem with the summit-style diplomacy format has been that Mr. Modi, while being an effective interlocutor, has spread himself a bit thin with the crushing pace of international engagements he has set for himself. Also, a centralised style of foreign policy-making means the MEA is often caught off-guard by decisions, and must then scramble to try and put them into action. Finally, given Mr. Modi’s pace and the paucity of officers in the MEA, there has been a reduced focus on preparation and little ability for follow-up.

Modi-Obama meet

It is with tempered expectations that the world now turns to the Modi-Obama summit in Washington next week. While the excitement over his engagements in the U.S. (more than 50 in five days) is high, the expectations from the “big” engagement with Mr. Obama are lower, given the past year’s dip in ties that Mr. Modi can hardly be held accountable for. The reasons for the doldrums have been many: the diplomatic war over Devyani Khobragade, the late start in engaging with Mr. Modi after years of him being denied a visa, the U.S.’s own preoccupation with its war on terror, the government shutdown and its economic resurgence. As a result, issues like the nuclear logjam over India’s supplier liability law, Intellectual Property Rights, trade issues over a bilateral investment treaty, and the TFA, H1B visas are all hanging fire for the moment. On the global stage, India isn’t expected to give much by way of assistance to the U.S. in its war against the Islamic State, and hasn’t been supportive of U.S. anger against Russia in Ukraine. These are all issues that will fill up the menu of discussions between the two leaders who have much in common — from their modest backgrounds to their incredible skills at oratory and belief in resolving issues in a personal style.

President Obama has also found over the past year — from the cyber security summit with Mr. Xi that was overshadowed by the Snowden revelations and his unsuccessful attempt at curbing Russia’s actions in Ukraine — that ‘one-on-one’s’ don’t transform ties. When these two personalities meet (albeit over a dinner of nimbu paani ), it will be the weight of those experiences rather than faith in the school of summit-style diplomacy that will help them script a new beginning for Indo-U.S. ties.

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