India's positive approach to China at SCO summit

Where this leads remains to be seen, although the record is not encouraging on this count

The 20-minute bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China’s President Xi Jinping on Thursday at Bishkek, Kyrghizstan, where both leaders were attending the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, appears to have been extremely satisfying for both sides. Briefing the media, foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale said the meeting was “warm and cordial”.

That is saying a lot as India-China relations, while having considerable scope for mutual cooperation bilaterally and internationally, are also spooked by geopolitics and the festering boundary issue, which the two leaders touched on in passing, instructing their special representatives (in India’s case, it is NSA Ajit Doval) grappling with the sensitive question to be “constructive” bearing in mind the larger context of the push for enhancement of ties in future.

Where this leads remains to be seen, although the record is not encouraging on this count. Nevertheless, both countries are leading powers in the global community, with China’s military and economic power having risen manifold in the past two decades, possibly bringing it to the status of a quasi-superpower.

However, the rise of this major world power has not been peaceful or uneventful, as the Doklam standoff showed. For its part, India still doesn’t endorse Mr Xi’s favourite international “Belt and Road Initiative” project as China has gone ahead with it, disregarding India’s claims in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. But the two can share a commonality of ties.

In Beijing, this is likely to be appreciated more acutely after the sharpening of China’s trade tensions with the United States since last year. President Xi has taken steps of late to allow more Indian agricultural and semi-agricultural exports to China, to which Mr Modi drew favourable attention during their interaction.

Apparently, the Indian leader takes it as an extremely good augury that six weeks earlier Mr Xi’s China dropped its objection at the UN to the listing of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. In light of this, Mr Modi spoke of the benefits of improvement in “strategic communications” between the two countries. He also made a very positive reference in this context to the start of operations in India by the Bank of China.

In light of the Azhar issue, the PM informed President Xi that India’s relations with Pakistan — with which China has a tight embrace — have been “derailed” due to terrorism. Again, it remains to be seen how effective the raising of the terrorism issue with China is going to be.

Mr Modi and Mr Xi had met for an “informal summit” at Wuhan, China, in 2018 and India is likely to host the Chinese leader in the same format later this year. With “strategic communications” having improved, as Mr Modi believes, the proposed informal summit is likely to give us a better idea of the pace of acceleration of the positive side of India-China ties.

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