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Ahead of G20, China’s Xi may meet PM Modi at BRICS summit next week

If it takes place, this will be the first in-person meeting between China's Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi since May 2020

August 20, 2023 12:56 pm

"Atmosphere not right" for bilateral meeting between President Xi, PM Modi at G20, say Chinese officials
“Atmosphere not right” for bilateral meeting between President Xi, PM Modi at G20, say Chinese officials

By Shubhajit Roy

China on Saturday indicated that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping will have a bilateral meeting in South Africa when they attend the BRICS leaders’ summit in Johannesburg from August 22-24. The BRICS grouping comprises Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

If the in-person meeting takes place, it will be their first scheduled meeting since the border standoff started in May 2020. The standoff has impacted bilateral ties, with minimal diplomatic engagement between the two countries over the last three years. The two leaders did have a brief encounter at the dinner in Bali, Indonesia, during the G20 summit in November 2022.

The indication about the Johannesburg meeting came from China’s ambassador to South Africa Chen Xiaodong, who told reporters in Pretoria, “I am confident that as two nations, two countries, we will have direct talks, direct meetings,” at the August 22-24 summit. This was reported by wire agency Bloomberg on Saturday. “I cannot say there is tension between us, but as neighbouring countries we have many common interests at the same time we have some problems,” he said on Friday, according to Bloomberg.

There is no official confirmation of a scheduled bilateral meeting, but sources in New Delhi said the two leaders will be in the same venue — either the summit room or the leaders’ lounge for almost two days in Johannesburg, and a possible meeting can’t be ruled out.

When asked, sources in the Chinese embassy in New Delhi also said they do not have any “relevant information for now”.

Both sides have kept the option open-ended, and that reflects a possible window of opportunity for the two leaders to meet on the sidelines of the BRICS leaders’ summit.

While Xi will be in South Africa from August 21 till August 24, Modi reaches Johannesburg in the afternoon of August 22. The main BRICS leaders’ summit is being organised on August 23, and the BRICS outreach sessions with African leaders will be held on August 24.

Modi is expected to have a series of bilateral meetings with visiting leaders of the African countries and Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, apart from host, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

PM Modi addressed the G20 Digital Economy Ministers' Meet via video message today.
PM Modi addressed the G20 Digital Economy Ministers’ Meet via video message today.

But all eyes will be on a Modi-Xi meeting— if it works out. This would be their 20th meeting since they have been in power — 18 meetings took place between 2014 and 2019, and since 2020 — when the border standoff started, they haven’t met in a scheduled format yet. Their 19th meeting, a brief one at the G20 dinner in Bali, was initially portrayed as a mere exchange of courtesies. Seven months later, India confirmed in July for the first time that the two leaders had indeed spoken about the “need to stabilize the bilateral relations”. The Chinese Foreign ministry had mentioned about the “important consensus” between the two at the Bali summit.

In the last month or so, diplomatic and military talks have taken place and they have picked up pace — ahead of the BRICS summit. They started with External Affairs minister S Jaishankar meeting Chinese Foreign minister Wang Yi (who was a senior political functionary then as Member of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Political Bureau and Director of the Office of the CPC Foreign Affairs Commission), followed by NSA Ajit Doval’s meeting with Wang again about 10 days later. Wang Yi was appointed Chinese foreign minister soon after once again, replacing Qin Gang last month.

This was followed by the 19th round of Corps Commander-level talks early this week, which issued a joint statement peppered with language perceived as positive: “The two sides had a positive, constructive and in-depth discussion on the resolution of the remaining issues along the LAC in the Western Sector. In line with the guidance provided by the leadership, they exchanged views in an open and forward-looking manner.

This was followed up by Major General level talks on Friday at Daulat Beg Oldie and Chushul along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh to work out the finer details of resolving the existing friction points.

This sense of urgency in the bilateral conversations also comes ahead of Chinese President Xi’s visit to India for the G20 leaders’ summit on September 9-10 this year, and that provides a window of opportunity to resolve the border standoff before the visit.

In fact, in 2017, when the Indian and Chinese troops were in a border standoff at Doklam, the two sides had managed to resolve the two-and-half-month-old border standoff — just days before Modi and Xi were scheduled to meet for the BRICS summit in Xiamen (China).

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