Substance and Optics of the Summit: The Hindu Editorial

Substance and Optics of the Summit: The Hindu Editorial

Substance and Optics of the Summit: The Hindu Editorial

The recently concluded ‘informal’ summit meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan was more about optics than substance. That doesn’t take away from the fact that the summit was a much-needed one and has added to the ongoing attempts to bring the bilateral relations between the two Asian giants back on track. Most of all, the Wuhan summit has underlined the necessity of an entente cordialebetween the two countries, which have become increasingly distrustful of each other. In that sense, Wuhan was about the desire to return to the negotiating table, not about negotiating anything specific. It is, therefore, important to consider the timeline.

The run-up to Wuhan

India-China relations have been under great stress in recent years. The 2017 military standoff at the Doklam tri-junction and the war of words that followed vitiated a relationship that was already reeling under a great deal of pressure. The Wuhan summit should be viewed in the context of this vitiated atmosphere and a strong desire for stability and rapprochement. Both sides had emerged bruised from the Doklam standoff, and having sold their preferred versions of how the standoff ended for domestic political purposes, the desire to stabilise the relationship was visible since late last year. In December, the two Foreign Ministers met in New Delhi followed by a meeting between China’s then state councilor Yang Jiechi and Mr. Modi’s National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, again in New Delhi. Then in February this year, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale visited China. The Wuhan summit was preceded by the visits of Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to China for Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meetings. These hectic diplomatic activities were accompanied by a clear change of tone in Beijing and New Delhi, reflecting a positive rethink on bilateral ties and a desire to avoid future military standoffs.

The electoral schedule

Notwithstanding the India-China rapprochement that was achieved in Wuhan, it is important to notice the significance of the timing of the summit. The fact that the meeting had no pre-defined agenda and was called ‘informal’ indicates that it was crucial for domestic political messaging too. Clearly, Mr. Modi needed this meeting more than Mr. Xi did given how the former would need a calm and peaceful India-China border as he leads his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) into the general election. Consider this: India-Pakistan relations are nowhere near normal, India’s neighbourhood policy is in doldrums (despite the recent overtures towards Nepal) and India-China relations have been becoming difficult. While tensions with Pakistan wouldn’t be costly for the BJP from an electoral point of view, a ‘failed China policy’ could potentially be used by the Opposition to take on Mr. Modi in the context of the BJP’s unsuccessful policy towards the neighbourhood. China is unlike India’s other neighbours. It is India’s biggest trading partner, and in many ways unavoidable from an economic and geopolitical point of view. The Wuhan summit — and the warmth and chemistry between the two leaders — also needs to be viewed in this context.


The summit’s outcomes may have been limited but are very valuable to stabilise the relationship. The most significant outcome pertains to the contested border. In Wuhan, Mr. Modi and Mr. Xi “underscored the importance of maintaining peace and tranquillity in all areas of the India-China border region… To this end, they issued strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication in order to build trust and mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs”, and “directed their militaries to earnestly implement various confidence building measures agreed upon between the two sides”. This basically means that the two countries have realised that local military activities on the border and tactical factors can have strategic and political implications — and that not everything that happens on the India-China border between the two militaries is politically sanctioned. That border tensions, which often occur without the explicit directives of the central leaderships, can potentially derail the relationship is an important realisation and the two sides should be credited for addressing it. For sure, this is not a new realisation. In 2013, New Delhi and Beijing signed the border defence cooperation agreement which aimed at maintaining peace along the Line of Actual Control. In 2015, during Mr. Modi’s visit to China, the two countries further agreed to “carry out annual visits and exchanges between the two Military Headquarters and neighbouring military commands, endeavour to operationalise the hotline between the two Military Headquarters, expand the exchanges between the border commanders, and establish border personnel meeting points at all sectors of the India-China border areas”. Many of these suggested measures have not yet been implemented, most notably, the hotline between the two military headquarters. Moreover, lower-level military contacts that have been put in place have not been able to reduce friction, as was evident during Doklam. Given that the two countries recognise the importance of controlling local military standoffs, it is important that they update the 2013 defence cooperation agreement as well as set up the hotline. Meanwhile, the proposed joint economic project in Afghanistan could be instrumental in mitigating the trust deficit between the two sides. China is acutely aware of the potential Pakistani negative response to India-China cooperation in what Pakistan considers to be its sphere of influence. However, if China can persuadePakistan to see the utility of India-China (and potentially Pakistan) collaboration in Afghanistan, it could promote trust and cooperation all around. More significantly, if China and India can cooperate in Afghanistan, they can certainly do so in other parts of the neighbourhood. In that sense, then, India, instead of being agitated about Chinese ‘encroachments’ into its traditional sphere of influence, should consider joint India-China projects in the region.

Going forward

Notwithstanding the positive outcome of the Wuhan summit, it must be asked whether the summit has come too late in Mr. Modi’s current term as Prime Minister to herald a new beginning between India and China, especially on the border question. China watchers argue that the broad contours of an India-China border agreement have been worked out during the 20 rounds of talks at the Special Representatives level. However, an agreement can only be arrived at a higher political level. While Mr. Modi and Mr. Xi, both with strong domestic political standing, would be able to reach such an agreement, and use it to further consolidate their domestic appeal, will Mr. Modi take that gamble? If not, weren’t the ministerial visits that were already taking place and Mr. Modi’s upcoming visit to China in June for the SCO summit enough to sustain the thaw? The answer perhaps lies in Mr. Modi’s keen eye for the optics and its domestic political utility.


1) Entente cordiale
Meaning: A friendly agreement or relationship between two countries.
Example: The entente cordiale was cemented again.
Synonyms: Agreement, Understanding
2) Distrustful
Meaning: Feeling or showing distrust of someone or something.
Example: “I have grown up to be distrustful of men”
Synonyms: Mistrustful, Suspicious
Antonyms: Trusting
3) Negotiating
Meaning: Try to reach an agreement or compromise by discussion.
Example: “they refused to negotiate with the rebels”
Synonyms: Parley, Confer
4) Standoff
Meaning: A deadlock between two equally matched opponents in a dispute or conflict.
Example: “the 16-day-old stand-off was no closer to being resolved”
Synonyms: Deadlock, Stalemate
5) Vitiated
Meaning: Spoil or impair the quality or efficiency of.
Example: “development programmes have been vitiated by the rise in population”
6) Reeling
Meaning: If you reel, or your mind or brain reels, you feel very confused or shocked:
Example: Our team is reeling from five straight losses.
7) Rapprochement
Meaning: (especially in international affairs) an establishment or resumption of harmonious relations.
Example: “there were signs of a growing rapprochement between the two countries”
8) Bruised
Meaning: Having bruises.
Example: She was badly bruised but otherwise unhurt.
Synonyms: Distress, Upset
9) Hectic
Meaning: Full of incessant or frantic activity.
Example: “a hectic business schedule”
Synonyms: Frantic, Manic
Antonyms: Leisurely, Quiet
10) Significance
Meaning: The quality of being worthy of attention; importance.
Example: “adolescent education was felt to be a social issue of some significance”
Synonyms: Importance, Import
Antonyms: Insignificance
11) Crucial
Meaning: Of great importance.
Example: “this game is crucial to our survival”
Synonyms: Pre-eminent, Paramount
Antonyms: Unimportant
12) Unavoidable
Meaning: Not able to be avoided, prevented, or ignored; inevitable.
Example: “the natural and unavoidable consequences of growing old”
Synonyms: Inescapable, Inevitable
13) Contested
Meaning: An attempt, usually against difficulties, to win an election or to get power or control.
Example: The primary in Iowa is the first contest for the Republican nomination.
14) Underscored
Meaning: Emphasize.
Example: “the company underscored the progress made with fuel cells”
15) Tranquillity
Meaning: The quality or state of being tranquil; calm.
Example: “passing cars are the only noise that disturbs the tranquility of rural life”
Synonyms: Peace, Repose
Antonyms: Commotion
16) Enhance
Meaning: Intensify, increase, or further improve the quality, value, or extent of.
Example: “his refusal does nothing to enhance his reputation”
Synonyms: Increase, Intensify
Antonyms: Diminish, Mar
17) Implications
Meaning: The action or state of being involved in something.
Example: “our implication in the problems”
Synonyms: Involvement, Connection
18) Realisation
Meaning: The achievement of something desired or anticipated.
Example: “he did not live to see the realization of his dream”
Synonyms: Fulfilment, Achievement
19) Mitigating
Meaning: Make (something bad) less severe, serious, or painful.
Example: “drainage schemes have helped to mitigate this problem”
Synonyms: Alleviate, Reduce
Antonyms: Aggravate, Increase
20) Acutely
Meaning: (with reference to something unpleasant or unwelcome) intensely.
Example: “the whole situation was acutely embarrassing”
Synonyms: Extremely, Exceedingly
Antonyms: Slightly
21) Persuade
Meaning: To make someone do or believe something by giving them a good reason to do it or by talking to that person and making them believe it.
Example: If she doesn’t want to go, nothing you can say will persuade her.
Synonyms: Incline, Cajole
22) Agitated
Meaning: Campaign to arouse public concern about an issue in the hope of prompting action; make (someone) troubled or nervous.
Example: “they agitated for a reversal of the decision”
Synonyms: Fight, Struggle
23) Encroachments
Meaning: A gradual advance beyond usual or acceptable limits.
Example: “urban encroachment of habitat”
24) Herald
Meaning: Be a sign that (something) is about to happen.
Example: “the speech heralded a change in policy”
Synonyms: Signal, Indicate
25) Consolidate
Meaning: Combine (a number of things) into a single more effective or coherent whole.
Example: “all manufacturing activities have been consolidated in new premises”
Synonyms: Combine, Unite

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