Calibrated effort on to rebuild ties that had been jolted last year by the Doklam military standoff

by Atul Aneja

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s telephone call to Chinese President Xi Jinping after his election for a second term is part of the “Xiamen process” — a calibrated effort to rebuild ties that had been jolted last year by the Doklam military standoff.

“It would be correct to call the energetic efforts to re-rail ties between India and China as the ‘Xiamen process’. After all it was on the sidelines of the Xiamen BRICS summit that Prime Minister Modi and President Xi decided to give a firm direction on re-building post-Doklam ties,” highly-placed sources, who did not wish to be named, told The Hindu.

The sources said that a decision had been taken to congratulate Mr. Xi, after he was elected for a second presidential term, either by a statement or a telephone call. “Ultimately it was the Prime Minister who decided to call President Xi on the phone to congratulate him personally.”

Mr. Modi also took to Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, where he has a wide following among Chinese netizens, to convey his message to President Xi on his re-election.

Ahead of June SCO Meet

The sources said the call by the Prime Minister has set the tone for his meeting with Mr. Xi at Qingdao — the venue of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in June. No other “informal” meeting between the two leaders is planned so far, ahead of the SCO conclave.

It is anticipated that the Qingdao meeting will further “change the narrative for the better,” and set the stage for a bilateral summit, possibly later in the year. “At this stage we have not had a conversation on whether it would be President Xi or Prime Minister Li Keqiang who could visit India,” the sources observed.

The step-by-step rebuilding of the post-Doklam ties began soon after the Xiamen summit, with the back-to-back visits to India in December by the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and of State Councillor and Polit Bureau member Yang Jiechi. In February, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale then visited Beijing for across-the-board talks. “Through Mr. Gokhale’s visit, we wanted to demonstrate that we were as keen as China in rebuilding post-Doklam ties,” the sources said.

Series of High-Level Visits In Wait

Several high-level visits are now in the pipeline. China’s Commerce Minister Zhong Shan is heading for New Delhi for the India-China Joint Economic Group (JEG) meeting that Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu will host on Monday. It is likely that the larger fallout, including impact on the emerging economies, of the on-going trade tensions between China and the United States, will be part of the conversation between the two Commerce Ministers.

Sources clarified that the proposed visit of Guo Yezhou, Vice-Minister in the International Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) has been postponed because China’s foreign policy establishment is undergoing major restructuring following the annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) — China’s parliament — which concluded on March 20. Media reports suggest that the International Department of the CPC is being merged with Party’s powerful Leading Group on Foreign Affairs — a multi-agency set-up headed by Mr. Xi.

Other high-level engagements between the two governments include visit by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj starting on April 23. The visit of Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is also in the pipeline. The India-China strategic economic dialogue will be held in Beijing on April 13-14, between the NITI Ayog and the China’s top planning body, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).

Wang Yi’s Remarks Seen As Positive

From an Indian perspective, considerable meaning is being read into Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s elaborate remarks on New Delhi-Beijing ties, during his annual March 8 press conference, where he praised the two leaderships for demonstrating “strategic vision” in tackling the Doklam crisis. “If the press conference is any indicator, Mr. Wang, who has also been elevated to the post of State Councillor, has already set the tone for a new round of positive engagement with India,” the sources said.

The process of rebooting ties is likely to open fresh opportunities to readdress persisting differences between the two countries, including designating Masood Azhar as an international terrorist and India’s Pakistan-centered objections to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

“We will remain firm wherever our core interests are involved, but we will also be seeking ways to positively engage with the Chinese side whenever the opportunity arises. We are looking for a balanced engagement,” the sources observed.