Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping will take on the task of rebooting India-China relations during their informal summit in Wuhan, reflecting a remarkable turnaround since the military standoff at Doklam nearly eight months ago.
Modi brings a sense of guarded optimism to Wuhan about the future of bilateral ties. To be fair, diplomats from both sides have insisted that the two-day summit is informal in nature, which means there could be little in terms of concrete takeaways at the end of it.
Though there is no structured agenda for the meetings on Friday and Saturday, the two leaders are expected to talk freely — and “heart-to-heart”— on issues tied to their national interests.
As he set off for China, Modi indicated in a series of tweets the focus would be on the “strategic and long-term perspective” of bilateral relations. He said he would exchange views with Xi on a range of bilateral and global issues.
“We will discuss our respective visions and priorities for national development, particularly in the context of current and future international situation,” he added.
Much of the talk in the run-up to the summit from both sides has focused on convergences, rather than the differences — including the border dispute, China’s blocking of India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the listing of Pakistan-based terrorists at the UN — that took the relationship to a new low.
“Our common interests far outweigh our divergences,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said. Vice foreign minister Kong Xuanyou said the two leaders will have “heart-to-heart discussions on overarching issues and try to build mutual trust and consensus to resolve outstanding differences”.
The People’s Liberation Army said the summit would stabilise ties between the two militaries and help maintain peace at the borders.
“Although the relations between the two militaries still face some difficulties and obstacles, we are willing to use the important consensus of the leaders of the two countries as guidance to deepen our understanding, enhance mutual trust, properly settle differences, and continue to accumulate the positive energy of the healthy and stable development of the relations between the two armed forces,” military spokesman Col Wu Qian said.
The summit also comes at a crucial time for both leaders. China is dealing with US protectionism and threats of tariffs on its products, which have led to fears of a trade war, while Modi is focused on steady economic growth ahead of a general election next year.
Tied to the national interests of the countries are the two leaders’ plans for “national rejuvenation” and factors that are slowing such plans.
The 5th Sino-Indian Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED) recently held in Beijing discussed cooperation in infrastructure, and Modi will have the opportunity to share his plans to improve India’s infrastructure and where China, with its vast experience in the sector, could come in.
The core message from the SED was that India and China “must focus incessantly and unremittingly on the development cooperation possibilities despite differences”.
Xi could use the summit to convince Modi about his legacy project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
“Some countries have signed onto the effort (BRI) but have yet to receive any tangible benefits. Others have not endorsed the Belt and Road but have done business deals that would otherwise fall under the Belt and Road’s broad and ever-expanding banner of activities,” said Jonathan Hillman, director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“India is a good example. It has been critical of the Belt and Road because it passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and includes investments in ports and other projects that could have strategic value,” he said.
Hillman said formal membership in BRI isn’t a prerequisite for doing related business with China. “I don’t think India will endorse the BRI soon. But it shouldn’t stop trying to expand other economic ties with China,” he added.
The two countries also have deep differences.
The standoff at Doklam — claimed by Bhutan but under China’s control — was preceded by the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh, India boycotting the high-profile Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, the impasse over India’s inclusion in the NSG and China backing Pakistan by blocking terror suspect Masood Azhar’s proscription at the UN.
But the fact that the two leaders agreed to hold a summit of this nature reflects that they are looking towards a broad consensus on which to take forward the relationship.