EXTENDED meetings such as the one at Mamallapuram are rare in a packed diplomatic calendar of two extremely busy world leaders. As the world watched, PM Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping picked up the threads of their previous leisurely interaction at Wuhan. At Mamallapuram, they logged six hours of one-on-one talks, making it 16 hours of direct talks. Though they have signalled the will to talk through the differences, it seems strange that J&K never came up for discussion. China has more than passing interest in India’s top national security priority. It controls two slabs of territory and has huge strategic stake in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir by virtue of its Belt and Road Initiative. Its sharp posturing on J&K was ample proof of that.
The public at large will never come to know most of what transpired between the two, but the tea leaves left behind in the Sino-Indian cup tell a tale of limited success. Since the UPA’s rule, India has tried hard to pry open the Chinese market. At Mamallapuram, India’s grievance of a grave trade imbalance produced the promise of a high-level ministerial panel. The defence side friction will be addressed by an invite to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, while additional steps to maintain tranquillity on the border await an Ajit Doval-Wang Yi interaction. The two leaders’ credibility will be dented if despite spending so much quality time together, the end result is that they have merely managed to avoid the traps of conflict and confrontation.
Xi and Modi have ample time in the saddle to rise above mundane tinkering with the elements of statecraft. Traces of discord and distrust will persist: having met Imran Khan before emplaning for Mamallapuram, Xi’s next stop was Nepal to boost defence and connectivity. Moreover, all bets will be off if violence erupts in the Kashmir Valley. But their decision to hold a third informal summit suggests a burning resolve to turn the tide. Xi’s 100-year plan for cooperation is hyperbole, but the two have formed a clearer view of goals and ideas for furthering partnership like no Indian and Chinese leaders before.