The expected eight-hour-long informal interaction between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping in the picturesque Wuhan has attracted global and national attention.
The expectations are high, with foreign minister Sushma Swaraj suggesting the subjects include “over-arching" bilateral and international issues.
As this is an “informal meeting", the outcomes would be sketchy as there is no scope for a joint statement. However, future trajectories of bilateral relations are expected to get a facelift, especially in soft areas where ties have not acquired contentious dimensions.
Since the Xiamen multilateral meeting of the BRICS in September, when the idea of an exclusive meeting between the two populous but “simultaneously rising" Asian countries’ leaders was broached, hectic parleys took place. A flurry of visits ensued.
While bilateral relations are beset with a number of contentious issues such as the unresolved territorial dispute, China’s continuing support for Pakistan’s adventurism, its controversial role in Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka, forays in the Indian Ocean with submarine visits and buildup of bases such as Djibouti and Gwadhar, the two leaders are expected to find ways and means to break the logjam. This is tricky but the alternative of going back to the past is equally problematic as both countries’ footprints expand inexorably.
A 100-year war between Britain and France sapped their strengths, so with the Soviet Union and the US. As China and India build up on the borders and in South China Sea and Indian Ocean regions, this is something they need to learn from history.
In order to escape the emerging trade war with the US, China needs to diversify into unexplored areas, specifically in India. Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE are already facing flak in the US. For India, President Trump’s reluctance to step on Indian soil more than a year into his term is disappointing and a surprise visit to Wuhan will send signals of strategic autonomy.
Many issues will be raised by both sides, with hard issues becoming less intractable. Given the low level of relations that the Doklam incident had set in last year, it is likely that the Modi-Xi meeting could come up with a road map for intensifying confidence-building measures.
The current bilateral joint army operations have been postponed several times and only 106 soldiers participate from each side. This is likely to be enhanced, although China is reluctant to conduct these in areas opposite Pakistan.
Secondly, while India continues to raise the contentious issue of Chinese investment and deployment of “security guards" in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, New Delhi is likely to agree to investments in infrastructure projects in India, a promise President Xi made in September 2014 but which has witnessed little progress.
Thirdly, China has made major strides in vocational education, and India in higher education, IT and management. It is likely both leaders realize the opportunities in collaborating in these sectors.
Fourth, there are opportunities for both in health, medicine and related sectors given the rise of pandemics and other diseases recently. Social sector focus could as well enhance the image in both countries on excessive obsession with economic GDP figures.
Finally, cultural exchanges are likely to be enhanced, tapping into the soft power potential. In a future bilateral formal joint statement, we could possibly witness expansion in scholarships to learn each other’s languages—as Swaraj alluded to in her visit to Beijing—as well as in film production, book and other exhibitions, and visits to each other’s campuses and in tourism sector.
Srikanth Kondapalli is professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.