By Michael Kugelman
In the current era of international diplomacy, high-level summitry has become a very public spectacle, replete with pageantry and photo opportunities. Top leaders meet at beautiful venues; they exchange lovely gifts; offer effusive praise to each other; and, outside of some obligatory private discussions, the cameras never stop rolling — thereby enabling the international commentariat to scrutinize their every move and word.
Not surprisingly, this trend has coincided with the era of Donald Trump, a leader who relishes the theatrics and wall-to-wall media coverage afforded by such affairs.
The latest such summit took place this week between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Mamallapuram, an Indian town about 60 km from the megacity of Chennai. It was a follow-up to a similar event in the Chinese city of Wuhan last year.
There was, as expected, all kinds of pageantry. The two leaders drank coconut beverages, toured international heritage sites, and enjoyed sumptuous working dinners — all against a lovely beachfront backdrop on the southeastern coast of India.
However, we shouldn’t dismiss this Modi-Xi event as just another example of high-level diplomatic gimmickry. Indeed, any formal engagement between the leaders of the world’s two most populous nations should never be taken lightly.
In that regard, the main takeaway from the summit is that two of the world’s most powerful players, despite being strategic rivals and grappling with a longstanding border dispute, are making very real efforts to keep their relationship cordial. And that is a good thing, because the last thing the world needs right now is a conflict between the two Asian giants — or even the threat of one.
In the aftermath of the summit, there has been much talk of how little was done to address the tension points in India-China relations. Beijing opposed New Delhi’s move back in August to repeal the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, but the issue of Kashmir did not come up at the summit. New Delhi opposes Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) because the mammoth transport corridor project is expected to wend through disputed territory claimed by India. BRI was not an agenda point either. And the border dispute — the trigger for an India-China war in 1962 and a more recent standoff in 2017 — was not addressed in any meaningful way.
High-level summitry is not about delving into contentious issues — that is for leaders’ underlings to do in more unspectacular and private settings. Not surprisingly, the Modi-Xi exchange focused on underscoring the convergences in interests and shared goals of the India-China relationship. The two leaders emphasized their mutual concern about radicalization and terrorism. They spoke of the robust China-India trade partnership, and they agreed to launch a new high-level mechanism meant to address a trade deficit stacked in China’s favor. Significantly, an Indian Foreign Ministry statement released shortly after the summit stated that “both sides will prudently manage their differences and not allow differences on any issue to become disputes.”
One can justifiably dismiss all this as mere rhetoric. Still, rhetoric is important in international diplomacy because it showcases how countries wish to pitch their relationships to the rest of the world. Clearly, India and China want to prioritize the positive side of their partnership.
(Michael Kugelman, the Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, is a leading specialist on Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan and their relations with the United States. The editor or co-editor of 11 books, he has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, and other publications, covering topics ranging from U.S. policy in Afghanistan to terrorism to water, energy, and food security in the region. Twitter: @michaelkugelman)