Mahabalipuram summit: Were there any takeaways?

Mahabalipuram: Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping at Taj Fisherman's Cove for another round of one-on-one meeting followed by delegation-level talks and lunch, in Tamil Nadu's Mahabalipuram on Oct 12, 2019

New Delhi, Beyond the optics, did the Mahabalipuram summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping achieve anything tangible in smoothening the ruffles of the bilateral relationship?

According to experts, the fact that the two leaders spent a lot of time together and displayed a very positive body language shows that there is a good understanding between them, and they are prepared to invest in the bilateral relationship.

But, besides the high-level economic and trade dialogue mechanism to deepen economic cooperation and sort out the concerns pertaining to bilateral trade issues, there was nothing substantive, feel some experts.

Former diplomat Ashok Sajjanhar told IANS that the fact that the Mahabalipuram meeting did take place at a time when the relationship between the two nations was passing through a rather stressed and tensed time was important.

“The fact that both the leaders decided to invest so much time, effort and energy is demonstrative of the importance that both attach to this partnership. Both have found it (informal summit) a useful format, without any pressure of agenda or joint declaration. And they have decided to continue to take it forward,” he said.

Harsh V. Pant, Director of Studies, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), told IANS that the “intent behind these informal summit conversations is now well understood and has had its impact. When the top leadership is communicating to each other, there is less possibility of entering into a crisis like situation. And that has been the importance of this conversation.”

However, Pant added: “By and large, I am underwhelmed by the outcome of the Mahabalipuram summit. If you see the statement post Wuhan, it was more ambitious, there was talk of India-China collaborating in third countries, but this time it is very amorphous. The only concrete thing they have done is to create a new mechanism on trade to sort out trade differences, which is very welcome, and there is some recognition in China that the trade deficit is a real problem, which needs to be sorted out.”

“But that seems to be the only big takeaway. Other than that, it is all very generic… I don’t know if it will change anything on the ground so far as the reality of Sino-India relations is concerned. My hunch is nothing will change,” Pant added.

According to Sajjanhar, the fact that not only terrorism, but terror funding and support to terrorism were also mentioned in the MEA statement, was “a step forward”.

“But then, earlier too we have seen at the Xiamen BRICS summit where all the terror groups and people were named, but China did not do anything about it. So one will have to discount that.

“What I find disappointing is that there was no discussion on Pakistan or Kashmir. Possibly discussion did take place and Modi sensitised Xi about our concerns and gave him our perspective on the situation there. I think that would definitely have been done. We wouldn’t have let go of the opportunity to tell him. It will be too much to expect that they will take all our concerns on board. But even if that helps to moderate their support for Pakistan, that would be a big forward movement,” Sajjanhar felt.

According to Pant, Modi once again emphasised how we need to be sensitive about each other’s core concerns.

“But we know that China has not been sensitive to India’s core concerns, not just because it is not in its strategic interests,” he said.

Pant said while there “are limits to such kind of summitry, I think it is very productive for two large neighbours like India and China to continuously engage with each other at the top level. And as the Prime Minister put it, strategic communication is very important, and it has improved since Wuhan.”

“So I think that might be the only big accomplishment of this summit at this moment,” he said.

Pant said that he did not see it having changed much on the ground. “Once when you have difficult issues on the table, I’m sure we will be poles apart once again,” he added.

Sajjanhar said there were a number of question marks on whether the summit would take going in the beginning.

“The fact that it has happened and that we have these outcomes… Basically, I think it has contributed to better understanding and stability in our relations going forward,” he added.

According to Pant, the civilisational focus of the conversation between the two leaders had a subtext — “that India is also a centuries-old civilisation and therefore both of us are very similar in that sense, and neither of us should underestimate the other.”