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Modi, Xi may set aside diplomatic template to meet in China before SCO summit

Indian diplomats have neither denied nor confirmed the first visit, but Modi is scheduled to attend the SCO summit on June 8 and 9 in the coastal city of Qingdao and meet Chinese President Xi Jinping.

india Updated: Apr 16, 2018 16:55 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times, Beijing
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a meeting. (Reuters File Photo)

Speculation is mounting on whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi will make a quick visit to China in the coming weeks for a bilateral summit with President Xi Jinping weeks before his June trip for the multilateral Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit.

Indian diplomats have neither denied nor confirmed the first visit, but Modi is scheduled to attend the SCO Summit during June 8-9 in the coastal city of Qingdao and meet Xi then.

“During that (SCO Summit), we will definitely have a bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping. And before that happens, we want to have a lot of other meetings,” India’s envoy to China, Gautam Bambawale, told Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post in an interview in March.

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s unannounced visit to China last week fuelled speculation that it was in connection with Modi’s bilateral visit before the SCO meet.

Doval met Communist Party of China politburo member Yang Jiechi — formerly his counterpart for the border talks between the two countries — in Shanghai, and not in Beijing, away from the focus of media.

An official statement from India said the visit was part of high-level engagements between the two countries.

Doval’s visit wasn’t likely connected with the SCO Summit in June — he will be in Beijing in the middle of May for a meeting of NSAs from the SCO member states.

It will be unprecedented if Modi comes to China twice in a few weeks, and will be possibly an indication that both countries are serious about repairing ties — plagued by multiple festering issues such as the border dispute — damaged further during and in the aftermath of last year’s Doklam military standoff.

One reason for Modi and Xi to have a bilateral summit before the SCO meet is that the two leaders will have tight schedules during the multilateral meeting in Qingdao.

The SCO, an inter-governmental organisation founded in 2001, comprises Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, China, India and Pakistan.

India and Pakistan were admitted as full members of the organisation at last year’s Astana summit.

South Asia watchers here are worried that bilateral differences between the two countries could dampen the “Shanghai spirit” of cooperation that is said to drive the organisation. A prior meeting between Modi and Xi could ensure that issues such as Kashmir don’t hijack the SCO Summit.

It will also be a sign of how the heads of countries — those perceived as “strong leaders” — are trying to break from the diplomacy templates and strike a new type of relationship with counterparts to ease differences.

For example, a brief meeting between Modi and Xi on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg in Germany last July is said to have set the stage for resolving the Doklam standoff.

An increase in one-on-one engagements between Modi and Xi over and above the existing dialogue mechanisms could help guide the complex and layered India-China relationship toward a more mutually acceptable status.

Whether the two leaders decide to engage in more focused talks before they meet in Qingdao remains to be seen.

First Published: Apr 16, 2018 14:57 IST