Written by Parama Sinha Palit.

Formal bilateral summits between heads of governments have picked up momentum in recent years. These one-to-one meetings are parts of diplomacy aimed at building trust, limiting miscommunication and strengthening bilateral relationships in an international order fraught with challenges and threats. More casual meetings between heads of states are also gaining prominence as confidence-building measures (CBMs). Nonetheless, they are still exceptions and not a rule yet in strengthening bilateral ties. Former US President Barack Obama’s first meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping in an informal setting at Rancho Mirage in June 2013 made prominent headlines all over the world given its uniqueness in forging ties between two countries at a time when the relationship was getting overly complex. The formality of pomp and dark suit protocols characterising Summits was given a miss for a more informal setting with no neckties in the hope it would encourage the two leaders to shed inhibitions and engage in a frank and friendly dialogue.

‘Informal’ summits appear to have found some resonance with President Xi whose presidency is ushering greater control, post his core-leader status. Unlike his predecessors, who were known to be sticklers for protocol apart from being strict and formal in their public demeanour, Xi’s meeting with President Obama conveyed a different image of him — ‘friendlier’ and ready to engage. His latest meeting with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Wuhan during 27-28 April advances the initiative of informal summits between two Asian leaders.

President Xi is increasingly beginning to leave his own imprint on the management of both domestic and foreign policy issues. The Chinese state is moving towards greater control of the economy and domestic politics, China’s foreign policy is appearing practical and in sync with the norms of global politics. Xi’s decision to host the Indian Prime Minister on a stand-alone invitation and not on the sidelines of any other major global or regional gathering marks Xi’s new style of managing foreign policy. Though this wasn’t the first occasion when Xi and Modi departed from protocol to discuss in more informal settings. In 2015, buoyed by his visit to Modi’s hometown Vadnagar in Gujarat, where the famous Chinese explorer and Buddhist monk Hiuen Tsang was believed to have visited in 641 AD, Xi hosted Modi in Xian, where Hiuen Tsang spent his last years after returning from India.

So why was the ‘informal’ meeting held? Was it to convey key messages to the international community- which, by and large, have pitched China and India as key adversaries of the modern era? The ‘strategic autonomy’ perception underlined by Xi during the meeting indicates that with the US becoming more inward-looking, China is keen on partnering with India, along with other emerging powers to usher in a new international order no longer dominated by the West. At the same time, the initiative might have marked discussions on rule-making in a rapidly transforming international system where new powers are keen on writing their own rules. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s press briefing on 22 April reflected China’s heightened concern with the changing international order: ‘Xi and Modi will have strategic communication on the world’s profound changes, and exchange, in an in-depth manner, views on overall, long-term and strategic issues regarding China-India relations’.

The core intent of the meeting might have been more specifically bilateral as well. It could have been an attempt by China to cosy up to India, which is increasingly being drawn into the web of anti-China alliances with US allies and partners. Whether the Quadrilateral Coalition initiated in 2007 and revived in 2017 for containing China in the Indo-Pacific, or Washington’s decision to involve India in solving the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh, the proximity between Washington and New Delhi is too obvious. The proximity doesn’t bode well for China in the region given historical problems and awkward ties with Japan, the increasing anxiety in Australia over the downsides of intense Chinese engagement, and the trade war with the US. Its engagement of India, under such circumstances, might be for seeking a ‘balancer’, which enjoys some goodwill among the international community, and the US in particular.

In a more granular sense, the informal meeting could have been meant for conveying to India China’s positive intentions about engaging the neighbourhood at a time when the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) is critical for spurring its own economic development. Cooperation would well have been the Chinese carrot for India after the stick of the Doklam spat last September. Clearly, post-Doklam hostilities, there was a need for ‘heart-to-heart talks’ for closing the perception gap and restoring strategic trust. India could be a valuable partner for China given US President Donald Trump’s trade protectionism, which is a major worry for Delhi too. India’s large market could be an important channel for maintaining the robust growth of Chinese business and trade rebuffed by the US.

With China determined to emerge a global player, and India looking out for more strategic space, a peaceful and secure external environment is of the highest priority to both leaderships. Both are also committed to ‘neighbourhood first’ policies. Building trust and ‘maintaining peace and tranquillity in the border region’ are critical for sustaining unimpeded implementation of respective national economic agendas. An informal summit like Wuhan, with its unscripted time and talks, could help nurture a more effective bilateral working relationship. Bilateral leaders’ meetings do not necessarily have the most productive outcomes: one needs to only recall Chinese premier Zhou En Lai’s meeting with the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in India in 1960, which could not prevent military hostilities between the two countries in 1962. But talks matter and candid talks even more so. Wuhan might have marked a new beginning in the engagement discourse between China and India where informality might become the preferred structure.

Dr Parama Sinha Palit is the author of Analysing China’s Soft Power Strategy and Comparative Indian Initiativesand India and China: National Image-building in Southeast Asia. She can be reached at psinhapalit@gmail.com. Image Credit: CC by Narendra Modi/Flickr.