Remember Wuhan, Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping’s informal summit in April this year? There was a lot of that ‘Wuhan Spirit’ in Delhi on Thursday as a mix of diplomats and academics from India and China mulled over relations between the two countries. Their meeting was the third edition of the exchange between two think tanks the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). What may have lent greater gravitas to their deliberations was the visit on Friday of Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, for the first meeting of the high-level mechanism on cultural and people to people exchange.
The mechanism is the direct result of the Modi-Xi discussions at Wuhan, which flowed from the Doklam standoff of the previous year. Both leaders apparently determined that greater contact between the two people was necessary to lessen mistrust (and avert another Doklam).
China’s Ambassador Luo Zhaohui reeled off a list of firsts, “since Wuhan this is the first meeting of foreign ministers, the defence minister was here in August and the public security minister in October, we are setting up an eminent persons group to promote people to people contact.”
His compatriot Dr Zhao Hai, research fellow at the Institute of World Politics & Economics in CASS, called for an India China partnership in the 21st century in areas as wide apart as poverty alleviation and climate change to tackling terrorism and addressing instability in Afghanistan and Myanmar.
Which is all very well, so former foreign secretary Shyam Saran bluntly spelt out the challenges before India and China. “The challenge lies in making that Wuhan spirit percolate down through the system, civil and military. We need to recognise the accumulation of issues from the border dispute to China’s issue of paper visas that affect our ties. Our areas of influence are overlapping in our periphery,” he warned adding that “we need to understand each other’s ambitions and goals.”
He returned to the border dispute, telling the assembled academics and serving diplomats from both countries that “we need to address outstanding issues with urgency rather than simply postponing. Strategic maturity is required on both sides and we must constantly invest in the positive content of our relationship.”
Goa University Vice Chancellor Prof. Varun Sahni pointed to the security vacuum in the region in the context of China’s rise, growing economic interdependence and the strategic shift to the Indo-Pacific. “There is no cooperative security architecture in this part of the world, nothing like the density of the security architecture that is visible in the Euro-Atlantic.”
He commended India’s presence in the Quad, in BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, describing them as “strategies India must pursue at a time of transition.”
Prof Madhu Bhalla, a China specialist at the ICWA, said the global system was breaking down as a result of US-China tensions over trade and technology. “This could be a crisis or an opportunity,” she said adding that “there needs to be a consensus on whether it must be reinvented, reformed or simply tinkered with.”
The question is whether the deliberations will result in a roadmap that can be implemented by the respective governments. It’s clear that both sides have different ideas over where their problems lie, which did not come as a surprise. It remains to be seen if the deliberations over Friday will bring the two sides any closer.
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