Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping The Doval-Swaraj-Sitharaman visits have laid the ground for the bilateral meeting between PM Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 27-28

Does Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hastily scheduled bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on April 27-28 in Wuhan presage a new beginning in the frayed Sino-Indian relationship? The two leaders are to meet in Qingdao for the SCO summit in June anyway – so why this sudden ‘informal’ bilateral? Discussions on the Modi-Xi meeting ahead of the SCO summit began in January in Davos and gathered pace recently. The signs were soon evident.

It’s not often that India’s external affairs minister, defence minister and national security advisor end up visiting the same country for high level talks within days of one another. NSA Ajit Doval made a discreet visit to China earlier this month followed by near-simultaneous visits by Sushma Swaraj and Nirmala Sitharaman this week. As the head of the proposed new Defence Planning Committee (DPC) comprising the three service chiefs and, among others, the defence, external affairs and finance (expenditure) secretaries, Doval is now not only the point man on border negotiations but also the key strategist leading India’s reset with China.

Swaraj and Sitharaman meanwhile have taken well to their complementary roles. Swaraj, on a four-day visit to China, met the rising star in the Chinese government, foreign minister and state councillor Wang Yi in Beijing on April 24. Sitharaman, in Beijing on the same day as Swaraj, meanwhile met Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe, at a venue, just miles away.

Important in themselves, the Doval-Swaraj-Sitharaman visits laid the ground for the Modi-Xi bilateral tomorrow. The meeting will be closely watched. In less than two months, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is scheduled to meet to consider whether Pakistan has done enough on terror financing to be spared blacklisting. At the February 2018 plenary of the FATF in Paris, China had surprisingly voted with the majority to grey list Pakistan. Only Turkey voted for Islamabad with even Saudi Arabia voting against.

China now holds the key to Pakistan’s possible blacklisting by FATF in June. Pakistan has clearly not done enough to tackle terrorism and terror financing. Hafiz Saeed continues to have free rein. Blacklisting would be a severe, even crippling, blow to Pakistan. Only two countries are currently on FATF’s blacklist: North Korea and Iran. Blacklisting cuts off international lending which Pakistan’s struggling economy badly needs. Foreign investment too would dry up.

Will Beijing let that happen? Almost certainly not. It has constantly defended Islamabad on terrorism, repeating the fiction that Pakistan is on the frontline of fighting terrorism, not perpetrating it. For China’s president-for-life Xi Jinping the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) overrides everything. Pakistan sits on real estate that connects China by road, rail and sea to the markets of the Middle East and Africa. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is an integral part of the BRI.

China has even tolerated the arrest of its nationals in two recent incidents in Pakistan. In the first, a group of Chinese engineers working on the CPEC beat up Pakistani security guards and were arrested before being deported to China. Last week three other Chinese nationals were arrested by the Pakistan Airport Security Force (ASF) at Islamabad’s new airport for using a drone to photograph the airport. The drone was shot down by the police and the Chinese nationals taken into custody before being released with a warning.

None of this has deterred China from protecting Pakistan in international fora. And yet, China’s leadership is pragmatic. It knows India is a rising power. The recent Gagan Shakti military exercise involving hundreds of IAF fighter jets, 10,000 army troops and the navy’s warships was India’s biggest war game in three decades. It drew grudging admiration from the largely anti-India state media in China which said only the United States and India were capable of carrying out such large-scale, complex war games.

When Modi meets Xi tomorrow in Wuhan, both men will be aware of the changed balance of power in the region. It will also be weeks away from the first anniversary of the Doklam crisis in which India successfully stared China down. India has since toned down the rhetoric. The decision to shift from Delhi to Dharamshala two events celebrating the 60th year of the Dalai Lama’s arrival in India was conveyed in advance to Beijing. That set the tone for the Doval-Swaraj- Sitharaman meetings in China and opened the way for the Modi-Xi bilateral.

But Indian policymakers should harbour no illusions. Dealing with China requires patience, strategy and flexibility. Rapid developments are taking place across the region. A summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, scheduled for late May or early June, could dramatically alter the geopolitical equation in Asia. China increasingly wants to be seen as a responsible superpower, not a regional bully. Its protectionist trade standoff with the US and the growing strategic ties between New Delhi and Washington have forced Beijing to rethink its belligerent approach to India.

For India, as with everything to do with the inscrutable Chinese, the strategy must be a calculated mix of firmness and flexibility. In Wuhan, over the next two days, that is the approach Modi should adopt.