By Rajendra Shende
Disagreements do not degenerate into disputes. Differences are the signs of mutual understanding and mature relationship. The meaningful and informal dialogues are the means to engage in path-finding. That is the mantra which seems to have inspired the practice of informal summits nurtured by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping for more than five years now. It represents the legacy of ancient civilizations from where both leaders come. The latest summit is taking place in India in the ancient port city of Mamallapuram, also called as Mahabalipuram.
The timing of the summit could not have been more appropriate. The second mega mandate given to Modi by 1.35 billion people of India in 2019 for the next five years and near-unanimous approval in 2018 by nearly 3,000 political members in National People’s Congress (NPC) representing 1.42 billion people of China in favor of President Xi’s continued presidentship beyond 2023, are the historical milestones in the political history of the world. The two leaders of giant economies, China ranking the second and India seventh, are sending the message to the world that bilateralism is not necessarily opposed to multilateralism.
The healthy shades of the bilateral dialogues have power to foster multilateral diplomacy on the strengths of the political leaderships and people’s mandate. As stated by Otto von Bismarck, the first German Chancellor, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best.” That was in the end of 19th century.
The globalized world is drenched with terror wars, trade battles, and territorial disputes. Prospect and promise of better days seem to be illusive and distant. Shades of hopelessness are so evident in dealing with formidable
challenges of climate change and inequality, that the world is about to resign to fatalism. Here comes the duo, Prime Minister Modi and President Xi, with the ‘next best hope’. Coming from civilizations that are known to be more than 5,000 years old, both have propounded total respect for nature. Modi had stated that “exploitation of nature is not acceptable to us”. Xi Jinping was equally emphatic in calling for “ecological civilization reforms” to account for the environmental repercussions on China’s development. That stands out considering that the developed countries, who are deep into the mindless consumerism and shameless materialism, are entangled in the environmental and social crisis that seems to be unbeatable.
Now both Modi and Xi are perched for disruptive diplomacy of the 21st century in terms of the informal summit. Stringent anti-corruption policy with exemplary personal characters of self-less leadership are the strengths of the duo that heralds the new era of hope to achieve socialism with equality as the most fundamental feature of development. Their informal meetings since 2014 have propelled the promise of disruptive diplomacy to address the defining challenges of our times including climate change and terrorism.
The world has witnessed disruptive diplomacy since the Cold War. In 1971, the so-called ‘ping-pong-diplomacy’ triggered by table tennis players from USA was seized by Chairman Mao and Henry Kissinger who transformed the relations between China and USA. The subsequent ‘shuttle-diplomacy’ initiated by the same untiring Kissinger opened up a new vista for the final Palestine-Israel peace deal. The ‘Olympic diplomacy’ that kicked off in 2018 with the joint participation in the winter Olympic games by two Koreas in one peninsula opened the path of dialogue across the 38th parallel. The world also witnessed, again in 2018, another scene of witty and comic diplomacy, which the media called ‘dandruff diplomacy’ that clearly amplified the body language of US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron while dealing with the strong disagreement on climate change.
The words ‘Let us make Planet great again’ of President Macron, reverberated globally. Trump jokingly brushed aside a piece of dandruff on Macron’s suit in front of reporters. It showed Trump’s appreciation of Macron’s steadfast and positive criticism and probably willingness to listen – a definite disruption in Trumpian tactics. The latest ‘cross border diplomacy’ of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s over the 38th parallel between two Koreas has given hopes of reducing tensions.
Now comes ‘chai diplomacy’ between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi. It started with chat on a jhoola (Indian name for a swing) on the banks of the Sabaramati river in September 2014 where Mahatma Gandhi lived. It was followed by an informal summit in Wuhan on the banks of the Yangtze river in April 2018 and now the third informal summit is expected to be in Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram), a south Indian ancient port city that depicts historical Buddhism connection between India and China. It was from here that the Pallava kings traded with China in the 6th century. The Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, who was a Pallava prince, travelled to China. The Chinese traveler Xuanzang visited Kanchipuram during Pallava rule and praised their benign rule. Both Modi and Xi have shown the creative backdrops in selecting the places for the informal summits.
More than the backdrops, the frontal edifice of informal summits is carved with the two principles. First ‘let-us-attempt-problem-solving-together’ approach. Second, one-to-one communication on the issues that are embarrassing to debate in the full view of the headline seeking media. The chessboard in front of the two leaders is full of web of pawns and rooks. Hedging one against other is complex. Border defence, trade-deficit and tariffs, neighbors’ interests, Belt and Road initiative, climate change, terrorism. The list of challenges is long, their inter-linkages are complex. But opportunities that are in front of the two leaders are catalytic and they could trigger multilateral summits and global transformation.
Both leaders strongly believe in the reforms in response to the changing world. Continuation of “comprehensive deepening of reforms” as stated in the outcome document of NPC, China is the starting point for Xi. Both leaders have demonstrated the speed and rigor in implementation of reforms, by Modi in the last four months of his new Government and by Xi since NPC in 2018. For Xi, “people are the masters of the country”, for Modi the “Prime Minister is the servant of the people’.
‘Improving people’s livelihood and well-being is the primary goal of development’ as stated by Xi, whereas Modi has stated the similar concept by coining the slogan of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’. ‘Eco-civilization for the shared future’ is Xi’s thoughts that are now getting mainstreamed in China. And Modi is known globally for spreading ‘Indian culture that cares for nature’. Xi has expressed to achieve ‘common destiny of the peaceful international environment between Chinese people and other people around the world’, as scripted in the outcome-document of NPC of China. Modi has expressed the similar goal through a message of ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’ to the UN General Assembly. Both strongly believe in the potential of strong institutions like Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), deployment of renewable energy, decarbonization of the economy and lifting millions of poor out of poverty to the road of prosperity.
Surely, like earlier summits, there may not be an official communique, but the world would be watching closely the two Asian giants with 40 per cent of the people on the planet. The centre of gravity of global stewardship has certainly shifted to the East. The world will be witnessing a formal transformation through informal dialogue.
(Rajendra Shende is Chairman TERRE Policy Centre and former Director UNEP. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
By Rajendra Shende