India-China relations: Modi, Xi look set to meet. Will frosty ties thaw at BRICS, G20 summits?

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Within months, both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping are likely to be in the same room again.

But whether the two leaders will hold bilateral talks and seek to mend their countries’ deeply strained ties remains to be seen.

Doubtful Indian foreign-policy observers cite New Delhi’s last-minute decision to make this month’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit virtual, eliminating the chance for a Modi-Xi meeting on the sidelines.

Both leaders are set to attend the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg from August 22-24 and the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Delhi a fortnight afterwards.

Yet Modi and Xi have not engaged each other diplomatically since the 2019 BRICS summit in Brazil. By contrast, despite deeply strained ties, Xi has met US President Joe Biden twice over the last two years, with a third meeting seemingly in the works.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Chennai, India in October 2019.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Chennai, India in October 2019.

Within months, both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping are likely to be in the same room again.

But whether the two leaders will hold bilateral talks and seek to mend their countries’ deeply strained ties remains to be seen.

Doubtful Indian foreign-policy observers cite New Delhi’s last-minute decision to make this month’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit virtual, eliminating the chance for a Modi-Xi meeting on the sidelines.

Both leaders are set to attend the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg from August 22-24 and the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Delhi a fortnight afterwards.

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of November’s G20 Summit in Bali. The two leaders have met twice over the last two years, unlike Modi and Xi.

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of November’s G20 Summit in Bali. The two leaders have met twice over the last two years, unlike Modi and Xi.

Yet Modi and Xi have not engaged each other diplomatically since the 2019 BRICS summit in Brazil. By contrast, despite deeply strained ties, Xi has met US President Joe Biden twice over the last two years, with a third meeting seemingly in the works.

A meeting between Modi and Xi is growing ever more essential, analysts say, amid their ongoing border stand-off and diplomatic flare-ups that have only hardened attitudes even as both nuclear-armed neighbours continue to fortify the Line of Actual Control with troops, heavy artillery and infrastructure, including lightweight high-altitude tanks.

Talks between military commanders have not yielded fruit, according to foreign-policy observers, who are now keenly watching whether the ice between the leaders finally breaks at their impending big-ticket summits.

Diplomatic freeze?

The leaders’ lack of recent in-person contact stands in stark contrast to their previous camaraderie – between 2014, when Modi became prime minister, and June 2020, they met 18 times and also held informal summits in 2018 and 2019.

Clashes between Indian and Chinese troops in the Galwan Valley, a part of the disputed border region near India’s Ladakh, put a stop to the bilateral meets.

BR Deepak, a professor of Chinese and China studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the possibility of a Modi-Xi meeting on the sidelines of next month’s BRICS summit was “very high”.

Such a meeting, Deepak said, could kick-start talks to resolve the stand-off.

“I believe if disengagement between the troops happens and negotiations on the friction points continue, it could pave the way for Xi’s prospective visit [to India for the G20 summit],” Deepak said.

Retired Indian Navy commodore RS Vasan noted there were similar expectations about the recent SCO summit before it went virtual.

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