Five things to watch for when Xi and Modi meet

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 September, 2017, 7:09am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 October, 2017, 5:49pm

The leaders of China and India are set to sit down on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Xiamen on Tuesday for their first bilateral meeting since the end of their months-long border stand-off in the Himalayas.

All eyes will be on Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for signs of the state of ties between the two countries in the aftermath of the 73-day dispute on the remote Doklam plateau, where China, India, and Bhutan meet.

Analysts say both sides have strategic mistrust on various issues, and the row is likely to have had lasting consequences on their relationship.

Here are a few things to watch for:

1. The Xi-Modi dynamic

The two leaders greeted each other cordially on Monday at the BRICS summit, with a nine-second handshake in front of the cameras. Xi and Modi met before at the Group of 20 summit in Germany in July, and a month prior to that on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Astana, Kazakhstan.

While Xi and Modi have yet to directly address the border dispute, the Chinese president has stressed the need for BRICS nations to “uphold global peace and stability”.

“Peace and development reinforce each other. People around the world want peace and cooperation, not conflict or confrontation,” Xi told the BRICS business forum.

Meanwhile, Modi said the bloc had developed a “robust framework for cooperation”, while contributing to peaceful cooperation in a world “drifting towards uncertainty”.

2. Reassuring noises

The Doklam row set off a war of rhetoric between Beijing and New Delhi and threatened to escalate before both sides agreed to “disengage”.

Observers say there was pressure to find some solution to the row ahead of the BRICS summit.

Now the question is whether Xi and Modi can give the right assurances to prevent a similar dispute along their long shared border.

After the troop pullback, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said he hoped New Delhi would “learn lessons from this incident and prevent similar things from happening again”.

Raveesh Kumar, spokesman for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, dodged the question when asked to comment on Wang’s statement.

3. The heart of the security matter

The Doklam conflict was the tip of a mountain of security fears between the two countries. New Delhi is concerned about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, China’s opposition to India joining the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and China’s increasing maritime presence in the Indian Ocean.

Beijing, meanwhile, bristled when India skipped the summit for its heavily promoted “Belt and Road Initiative” in May.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs has said its delegation will raise terrorism concerns in Xiamen, even though China’s foreign ministry has said India’s position on Pakistan and counterterrorism is not “an appropriate topic to be discussed at the BRICS summit”.

The BRICS nations released a declaration on Monday that broadly condemned terror groups, although it did not name Pakistan, a close Chinese ally.

4. The next steps

China and India have many opportunities for economic cooperation, including in trade and investment.

Amitendu Palit, a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies in the National University of Singapore, said China and India had already established a “comprehensive economic relationship” that went far beyond trade.

Palit said Xi and Modi could work to improve economic engagement between their nations, including addressing New Delhi’s concerns about India’s trade deficit with China.

5. A bigger BRICS?

China has been pushing to bring more nations into the five-country fold, but there have been fears in India that this will add more pro-China countries to the bloc.

China invited Thailand, Mexico, Egypt, Tajikistan, and Guinea to the summit this time under it BRICS-Plus banner, with Wang saying he hoped to “establish extensive partnerships and widen our circle of friends” to increase the bloc’s impact.

India also invited guest countries when it hosted the BRICS summit last year, but its Ministry of External Affairs said China’s invitations this time around “should not be related to any expansion of BRICS at this stage”.