The will-they-won’t-they-meet face-to-face did take place between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping of China, quite naturally as it happens. It was during an informal meeting of BRICS on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg. India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) promptly released a picture of the handshakes and smiles from the main protagonists, looking each other in the eye even as tense looking aides made up the rest of the frame. But there is no word on whether they discussed the Doklam stand-off, when the duo were reported to have spoken on a “range of issues”.
Modi came to his meeting with Xi Jinping later in the day, from a hard-hitting keynote speech on the scourge of terrorism and its state sponsors. This took place in the morning session of 7 July. Modi also showcased India’s economic growth trajectory and the hard won GST reform. Modi spoke of terrorism, however, without naming names, other than the several well known global terrorist organisations, such as ISIS, Boko Haram, LeT and JeM, used by some countries as a “tool”. This, even as he called for a more formal alliance between nations to fight the menace.
Xi Jinping, on his part, perhaps in relief, praised the Indian Prime Minister for highlighting international terrorism and for India’s economic progress under Modi. Prime Minister Modi, in turn, lauded the Chinese leadership and vision in the BRICS context.
Because of China’s immense trade connectivities with host Germany, and where Angela Merkel is headed for an election in September, Merkel was careful to extend pointed courtesies towards Xi Jinping.
The other participants too had to take note of the fact that Russia blocked a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution, just before the Summit, which wanted to impose additional sanctions on North Korea. This, for flouting international objections to setting off its latest intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which Russia justified as no more than a medium range missile. Significantly, the United States does not, as yet, have the technology to block an intercontinental ballistic missile in mid-flight. And the latest launch from North Korea, quibbling aside, does have the potential to reach Alaska on the US mainland.
Indications are, therefore, that the US may unilaterally impose additional economic sanctions on North Korea, and its lifeline China, while not ruling out its military options. Remarks to this effect were made, not just by Trump in his tweets, but in the United Nations itself.
The truth is, between the 11th G20 Summit, the first ever hosted by China at Hangzou in September 2016, and the 12th one at Hamburg on 7-8 July 2017, the Chinese dragon has begun to breathe intermittent fire, sometimes via its proxies Pakistan and North Korea. This might have theoretically shot the “China question” to the top of the unofficial agenda, even as the activists outside, some of them violent, were in a frenzy of anti-globalisation. So much so, that the wives and accompanying delegations were mostly confined to their secure hotels, while thousands of armed security forces were out on the streets to tackle the demonstrators.
The official discourse at Hamburg, by way of contrast, discussed the pressures on “free” trade, harder to come by these days, and its allied topic, what host Angela Merkel calls “competitive taxation”.
There were new trade initiatives discussed with regard to Africa.
The contentious Islamic refugee policy is something of an elephant in the room, with uneven consensus and little mention except in the context of terror. The US, of course, is implacably opposed, but did not have to say so afresh. And yes, despite Trump’s scowling presence on the topic, things like carbon footprints, credits and climate change did take up some of the Summit’s time. This is seen as something of a victory for new French President Emmanuel Macron. India has reiterated its commitment to implement its share of the Paris Accord in letter and spirit.
Though of less concern to others besides Japan, Australia and India, the sheer aggression and bluntness of China’s foreign policy rhetoric from home, in contrast to Xi Jinping’s cordial behaviour abroad, have raised a serious question in the minds of some China watchers. As in Pakistan, who’s really in charge? Is it the Communist Party political leadership, headed by President Xi Jinping, or the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), led by General Fan Changlong, plus a phalanx of other key generals?
While President Xi Jinping is technically the Chairman of the PLA too, it must be remembered he came to his more genteel, suit-wearing civilian job via Army fatigues too. Xi Jinping too is heading for the Chinese version of an election in November 2017, at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. The question arises, is he being put under deliberate internal pressure by the PLA?
But then, it may not be that clear-cut. President Xi Jinping did seek to pre-emptively blunt the expected pressure on North Korea via a recent visit to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, his sixth.
President Trump, the allegations of Russian links notwithstanding, seems to have developed a much better working relationship with President Putin, via over his first set of two hours of one-on-one talks. Trump, despite the clamour at home, is obviously not very concerned with the issue of Russian “interference” in the US elections. And now that ISIS, the faction opposed to Syria’s Bashar Assad, has been nearly wiped out in Iraq and Syria, Russia and US need not remain on opposite sides. Significantly, the Bashar Assad Government has survived the maelstrom intact. Trump, unlike Obama, will not seek the instability of “regime change” in Syria, having learnt from the chaos of the “Arab Spring” on his predecessor’s watch. And that has probably gone down very well with Putin, an Assad backer. Even if it doesn’t play quite so well in Tel Aviv, which views Syria as an Iranian ally, with both implacably opposed to Israel.
Meanwhile, the remnants of the anti-Assad ISIS, are already regrouping in Somalia, with a degree of safe passage afforded by the US.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his stature enhanced by two back-to-back economic/security partnerships with the US and Israel, came to the G20 on a stronger wicket. This may have moderated China’s stance, while nevertheless objecting to any counter moves, even joint military exercises from those affected.
While China has blatantly flouted the ruling of The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration with regard to the South China Sea, the issue is not being highlighted. This even after China had earlier ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), demonstrating its selective application and attitude to international law and convention. China continues to pursue a ham-fisted claim to the whole of the South China Sea, all the expected oil and gas in it and the islands that dot it, including some new man-made ones constructed by it. Vietnam, bravely, it must be said, and in consortium with India, has decided to go ahead with oil explorations in the contentious area. This even as China is displaying its new aircraft carrier on a tour to Hong Kong.
The Chinese thrust with One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) has not come up on the official discussion list either, despite concern about its propensity to bankrupt participating nations. India has, of course, kept out of the initiative, citing the illegitimacy of driving the road through technically Indian territory in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and nearby Gilgit and Baltistan. Some say its non-participation has further jeopardised the viability of the project and angered/embarrassed Xi Jinping.
Besides all this, the port city of Hamburg, located on the Elbe River, has quite a lot to offer culturally, which, given the protests, will not be sampled in full by the masses of visiting delegates. There is art, architecture, theatre, museums, music, history. The Summiteers were, in fact, treated to classical music concerts in the evening.
While the mood on the street is angry this time, it was in Hamburg, in the neon-lit and sleepless nights of the Reeperbahn, that the legendary but then unknown Beatles, once polished their unique repertoire. The G20 Summit itself, held at the Messehallen Convention Centre, would have been backed up by salubrious retreats for quiet discussions, if not for the security challenges.
India’s Narendra Modi, now in his third year in power, is being treated to the joys of being rerated by the august assembly, with his speeches setting the agenda in some instances. This, even as the benefits of his recent bilateral diplomatic coups will take time to play out. However, the likelihood of him remaining Prime Minister for another seven years is being noted. Besides the US and Israel are all-weather allies. And for India to join them within Prime Minister Modi’s characteristic bear hug is potentially a large development. India’s improved relationship with US and Israel, of course, comes on top of, and not at the expense of a long-standing and tested one with Russia. In a multilateral world today, this is important too.
Russia still supplies two-thirds of India’s military needs. But growing fast is the military and civil cooperation with both US and Israel.
India is modernising and rearming. The sale of Guardian unarmed drones for surveillance from the US, and the possibility of F-16s being manufactured in India, are in addition to the sale of lightweight 55mm howitzers, and military transport aircraft, all ongoing. From Israel could shortly come the much sought after armed Heron drones, and a small arms joint venture in short order, apart from missiles already on order and extensive training, intelligence sharing and so on. This in addition to several MoUs, just signed, spanning agriculture, water, and space, and their further modernisation with Israel.
The enhanced military relationship with Israel, also couched in terms of “terror”, could also provide vital R&D and innovation inputs, in addition to setting up a joint venture ecosystem to make it much easier to make defence equipment, including planes, in India.
The new US President, on his part, has seen fit to come to the G20 after a bilateral meeting each, with China first, and then India—both within six months of taking over.
This new equivalence, it is apparent, is between a rapidly growing and necessary India, and a much bigger, somewhat threatening, but slowing, China.