The world is now hours away from a day of two meetings that both carry the potential of being highly important. Realistically however, one meeting can already be called a success just because it is happening, while the other meeting will be something of a disappointment for anyone hoping for a substantive outcome.
Kim Jong-un Meets Moon Jae-in
Great Marshall Kim Jong-un of the DPRK (North Korea) will shortly cross the border to meet with Persident Moon Jae-in of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). In their first ever face-to-face meeting, the two will discuss further means of escalating the rapidly developing detente between the two Korean states, while many have suggested that the talks could pave the way for the signing of a treaty that will formally end the Korean war which in 1953 was paused by an armistice, but which has never officially ended.
There remains a possibility that a treaty could be signed on the 27th of April to this effect. While such an historic event would likely require more than one face to face meeting, at the rate at which Pyongyang-Seoul relations are thawing, anything is now conceivable.
The meeting will also set the tone for Kim Jong-un’s forthcoming meeting with Donald Trump. The more positive steps that Kim and Moon can make to ensure stability and two-way de-militarisation of the peninsula, the harder it will be for the US to make unrealistic demands during the forthcoming US-DPRK summit.
While the meeting will be filled with symbolism, it will certainly also accompany concrete steps towards a Korea which will becoming increasingly integrated in terms of culture, trade and possibly even geopolitical cooperation. Those who underestimate the ability of Kim and Moon to thrash out something tangible beyond that which is symbolic have consistently been proved wrong ever since the beginning of 2018 when the DPRK’s outreach to Seoul led to dramatic improvements relations that have already set in motion history making endeavours for cooperation.
There is now, no reason to believe that the face to face meeting should produce anything less than something history making and perhaps even something surprising in the most positive sense possible.
Xi Jinping meets Narendra Modi
If many pundits have been guilty of underestimating the potential for tangible results in respect of the Kim/Moon summit, many are equally guilty of expecting even a minor breakthrough in Sino-Indian relations during the forthcoming meeting between President Xi Jinping and Premier Narendra Modi in China.
The Chinese hosts have described the meeting as “informal” which is clearly indicative of the fact that China does not want to get its own hopes up nor the world’s hopes up when it comes to any possible reconciliation between the two countries.
China will predictably state that Beijing welcomes further dialogue with India on a range of issues including border disputes, bilateral trade and even possible Indian participation in the One Belt–One Road trading and logistics initiative. For China, such statements are nothing new. While Beijing has never and likely will never capitulate to Indian agitations and provocations over border disputes, China remains happy to engage in dialogue over the matter. India’s withdrawal of troops from Donglang/Doklam during last summer’s dispute, is a further sign that when it comes to border disputes, India is willing to provoke but ultimately it is China that holds the upper hand.
When it comes to trade, China has never sought a game of tit-for-tat with India, but instead has encouraged India to harness a post-colonial pan-Asian mindset rather than a zero-sum mentality that China has rightly associated with India’s former colonial rulers. In spite of this, it does not appear the Indian mindset has changed and nor is it likely to do so while Premier Modi’s radical Hindutva BJP remains in power.
It is certainly true that some in New Delhi are beginning to realise that warm words and the sale of expensive weapons from the US does not guarantee shelter from Donald Trump’s trade war, a war in which the US has put up tariff walls against both old friends like Japan, South Korea and the EU, as well as new rivals like China. If the US disappoints India in this respect, China is a clear alternative to the US and objectively, it is a preferable one due to the needs of India as a large developing Asian economy. Russia would be all too happy to help China and India reconcile their differences, just as Moscow is happy to play this role in respect of Vietnam and China. Still though, India’s reticence to use its position in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to pursue peace with both China and fellow member Pakistan, is a sign that reconciliation is a long way off.
So while the fact that Modi is travelling to China means that he is clearly hedging his bets, many have underestimate the systemic Sinophobia that has become part of the political culture in India under the BJP. Hindutva radicals on the street, shrieking voices on Indian media and many government ministers now view an artificial rivalry with China as a kind of religion. To this end, China is now discussed in high levels of Indian media and government as though it is some sort of devil that can only be resisted.
The combination of this reactionary attitude towards China combined with sustained pressure from the US to resist doing any deals with Beijing means that Modi has essentially backed himself into a corner. Unless the situation in India gets a lot more economic desperate in short order (which remains a distinct possibility), it is doubtful that Modi will take the plunge and admit he was wrong to antagonise a wealthy neighbour that under the right conditions could be a healthy partner for India.
The stark contrast between the forthcoming Xi/Modi and Kim/Moon summits can be summed up by the expression ‘it takes two to tango’. In spite of a deeply hostile recent history between the two states of a divided Korea, Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in have both shown the utmost maturity, pragmatism, fraternal good will and forward thinking when it comes to mending old wounds. Had even one of the leaders taken a different attitude, none of the progress currently being made in Korea would be happening.
By contrast, while China has never shut the door on India, the Modi government’s attitude towards China continues to be one of hostility, ill will, suspicion which borders on conspiratorial hysteria and one which is led from behind by the US – something China is all too aware of. Thirty years ago it would be hard for people to image that South Korea would be capable of leading rather than following the US when it comes to a pursuing an independent policy for peace and cooperation in Korea, while it would have been equally unimaginable to image an India so besotted with the United States that it is essentially cutting off its nose to spite its face in respect of trade with its largest and most wealthy neighbour, all the while disregarding decades of good will from Moscow. But this is the new reality.
While Kim and Moon look set to see eye to eye more so than any previous leaders of the DPRK and RoK, when it comes to Modi and Xi, the handshakes and diplomatic statements may well be there, but Modi’s attitude means that he has made his own mission to China something of a lost cause, even if in the medium term India ends up given into logic and reaching a reasonable accord with China.