From the Wuhan Spirit to the Chennai Connect, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is clearly trying to make Chinese President Xi Jinping his frenemy. Mr Xi, for his part, couldn’t care less, even if he muttered something about his “heart-to-heart” talks with Mr Modi as he departed the second informal summit in Mamallapuram on Saturday for Kathmandu (where, incidentally, he would be firming up a railway deal, something Nepal has been pursuing ever since India's 2015 blockade of our Himalayan neighbour). It now seems that Mr Xi’s visit was complete even before he reached — by his reiteration, in Beijing, of China’s support for Pakistan’s “core interests and key concerns” in Kashmir. For India, it cast a shadow on the summit on the day before it was to start: the government is prickly after having two months ago revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy, bifurcated and demoted the State, and placed the residents in an open-air prison with no communication facilities. What New Delhi must have prayed for was that when, on the first night of the summit, Mr Xi and Mr Modi had a two-and-a-half hour discussion over dinner, Kashmir would not be on the menu.
To that end they succeeded. Going by foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale’s vacuous statements the summit focused on trade. India has a real grouse with the “trade deficit and unbalanced trade” between the countries that is not in India's favour: in 2018-19, India imported USD 70 billion worth of goods from China, but exported only USD 17 billion of goods. All that Mr Xi did was announce that his vice-premier would meet finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman about the trade deficit. He obviously is aware of her capabilities, as evidenced by her rollback per week of her budget proposals. It’s not his priority. And why should he care about our trade deficit? During dinner, news came of US President Donald Trump’s announcement of an interim trade deal with China (called Phase 1), in which threatened tariffs on USD 250 billion worth of Chinese goods is temporarily set aside. Mr Modi was busy serving dessert.
They also talked terrorism. Mr Modi and Mr Xi agreed to work together to ensure that “radicalisation and terrorism” did not affect the fabric of the “multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies” of their countries. This is Orwellian doublespeak; neither leader is interested in his nation’s minorities; and Mr Xi will not for one moment budge from his country’s position on Kashmir.
We were told that “Wuhan Spirit” meant that both countries would settle differences in the relationship through peaceful discussion and proper management. The “Chennai Connect” shows that China continues to say and do whatever it pleases. The informal summit was nothing more than a gabfest.
On the second morning, a video showed Mr Modi on an early-morning clean-up of the beach outside the luxury resort. Like his donning a veshti (to perhaps counter the trending #GoBackModi), or the moniker “Chennai Connect”, or even the idea of the "informal summit" itself, it was just another gimmick: a sad substitute for formalised ideas and formalised solutions....