Originally published as ‘Samarkand SCO: Significance of the Modi-Xi non-meeting’, Moneycontrol, 19 September 2022.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not meet one-on-one with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Uzbekistan on the sidelines of the 22nd meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) Council of Heads of State. At least there is no publicly shared evidence of the meeting so far. One cannot be absolutely sure, of course, for such is the nature of diplomacy.
In a media briefing on the eve of the summit, Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra was notably cagey about what other bilateral meetings the Prime Minister would have apart from the one with the President of the host country, Uzbekistan.
If Modi and Xi did not meet, was it the case that either side did not request for a meeting, or that one or the other side did not accept the request? What are the larger implications of this development?
From India’s perspective, the non-meeting could be seen as a necessary corrective after the informal summits between Modi and Xi in 2018, and 2019. The only real outcomes of those summits after all, were Chinese success in misleading the Indians with post-Doklam bonhomie, and showing up the lack of Indian military preparedness to tackle the large-scale Chinese transgressions across the LAC in the summer of 2020.
However, the non-meeting also raises broader questions about India’s China policy.
One, if the Prime Minister chose not to request a meeting, or turned down a request for one with Xi, then this is also a fairly explicit declaration of the direction of India’s relationship with China given that there is an extremely high likelihood Xi will return to power for a third term as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October.
A third term would underline Xi’s status as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, and likely mark an even more assertive turn in Chinese foreign policy than is already evident. India, will without doubt, be one of those at the receiving end of this assertiveness.
The argument could then be that Modi did not need to go through the motions by meeting with Xi if this assertive turn is inevitable.
Two, however, if this is the Indian approach, is New Delhi also ready for the consequences of rebuffing or ignoring Xi? Yes, Indian troops remain deployed at full strength along the LAC, and a new aircraft carrier has been commissioned but crucial tasks such as the theaterisation of military commands continue to plod along, and as important a vacancy as that of the Chief of Defence Staff remains unfilled nine months after the last incumbent was killed tragically in the line of duty.
This then leads to a third major question: was the non-meeting a concession to politics at home? In other words, is the government’s China policy still driven by various domestic dynamics rather than by a clear understanding of India’s foreign policy and security interests?
Several senior retired Indian Army officers who have served in the area have noted that India’s disengagement from various points of friction along the LAC in eastern Ladakh has involved the creation of ‘buffer zones’ on the Indian side, which prevent patrolling by Indian troops to points they earlier had access to.
Konchok Stanzin, councillor from the Chushul constituency along the LAC, has amplified such concerns by claiming that grazing grounds used by local herders have in the process not only now become ‘buffer zones’ but also ‘disputed areas’, and that decisions are being taken without democratic consultation. Under the circumstances, a Modi-Xi meeting could have been poor optics domestically.
The validity of the thesis of ‘buffer zones’ can be questioned, however. Disengagement is after all only one part of the ongoing diplomatic process between the India and China, and it can also be logically expected that the Chinese too have been forced to create buffer zones on their side of the LAC.
Meanwhile, what of the Chinese if they too did not request a meeting, or if it was them that rebuffed a request?
One rationale could be to not take attention away from Xi’s meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, which also had the purpose of showcasing an anti-Western front. A meeting with Modi, seen as a close ally of the United States could have ended up confusing the message.
Two, Xi might not have wanted to meet with the Indians for fear of highlighting the sharp differences between China and India on the response to COVID-19. While India made a hash of its response to the second wave, it has overcome with efficacious vaccines and a successful vaccination programme. The Indian economy too, is largely back to normal operations. China, by contrast, is still locking down cities with millions of people. With the 20th CPC Congress round the corner, the party’s image managers would have wanted to avoid unflattering comparisons.
Three, the Chinese probably did not want to give the impression so soon after the disengagement at PP-15 that they had bowed to any kind of pressure to get a meeting with Modi. Remember that India got China to vacate the Depsang intrusion in 2013 by threatening to cancel Premier Li Keqiang’s first planned foreign visit to New Delhi.
The Modi-Xi informal summits were poorly thought through, and a mistake from the Indian perspective, but by not meeting in the current circumstances, despite the opportunity available, the two leaders have also undermined in a way the entire diplomatic process underway. Even though there is an opportunity to make up at the G-20 summit in Indonesia in November, the non-meeting at Samarkand possibly marks a significant passage in the history of Sino-Indian relations.