Modi-Xi talks hint at limits of personalised diplomacy

Modi has pursued high-velocity diplomacy, logging frequent flyer miles along the way but his attempts to forge a modus vivendi with Beijing has come unstuck. In photo: Modi (R) with Jinping (L). (Source: Wikipedia) Photograph:( Others )

Benaulim, Goa, India Oct 15, 2016, 04.06 PM (IST) Ramesh Ramachandran

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met today for the ninth time in over two years but the salubrious weather in western Indian state of Goa did not appear to bridge the chasm that divides the two Asian neighbours.


Modi and Xi agreed to disagree on issues that are of immediate concern to India, namely India's membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the proposed United Nations ban on Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar, who India accuses of having had a hand in a series of terrorist attacks in India, including the September 18 Uri attack in northernmost state of Jammu and Kashmir.


Indian ministry of external affairs spokesperson, Vikas Swarup, told reporters that Modi spoke "frankly" about the need for finding a common ground on the proposed UN ban on Masood Azhar.


"China has proposed that second round of consultations on the NSG issue will be held soon. Also, Chinese state councillor Yanj Jiechi can be expected to hold talks with national security adviser AK Doval," he said.


India, Swarup added, has had a "continuous dialogue" with China on terrorism and it remains hopeful of China's cooperation on these and other issues bilateral, regional and global issues of interest to both Beijing and New Delhi.


Modi has pursued high-velocity diplomacy, logging frequent flyer miles along the way but his attempts to forge a modus vivendi with Beijing has come unstuck and in the process exposed the limits of his personalised diplomacy. 


In fact, in the run-up to the Modi-Xi Goa meet, Beijing pre-empted New Delhi by iterating its positions on NSG and Masood Azhar, partly in deference to the sentiments of its all-weather ally Pakistan but also as a lever to pin India down geopolitically in South Asia.


Modi's first meeting with Xi after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power was at the BRICS Summit hosted by Brazil in July 2014.  Modi invited Xi to Gujarat in September the same year in an apparent effort to extricate the Sino-Indian ties from a diplomatic cul-de-sac and introduce an element of personalised diplomacy into India's foreign policy.


Although Modi has met both Xi and US President Barack Obama eight times each, his personal chemistry with Xi couldn't really take off. This, in spite of Modi and Xi sharing some similarities. For one, both have risen to the pinnacle of their political careers around the same time. Both appear to revel in popular nationalism.


As Avinash Godbole writes in a paper for the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), Xi and Modi enjoy a significant mandate as the leaders of their respective constituents. "There is [also] the case of their overlapping foreign policies that focus on neighbourhoods and a vocal approach to engagements," Godbole points out.


However, Modi's engagements with Putin stand in sharp contrast to Xi. Modi and Putin share some personality traits, including their penchant for a muscular approach to diplomacy -- Ukraine in the case of Putin and Pakistan so far as Modi is concerned. It helps that India's ties with Russia stand on a different pedestal than China.


As foreign secretary of India, S Jaishankar points out, Russia has been a time-tested partner and friend of India and it is reflected in Putin's "unequivocal condemnation" of terrorism directed against India. Diplomats everywhere are not seldom given to making off-the-cuff remarks, so when Jaishankar uses the phrase "a meeting of minds" to describe the Modi-Putin talks, it assumes a special significance of its own.