Reaching summits, the ultimate zenith, is the dream of every climber; mountaineers spend years, undaunted by innumerable ‘risky’ attempts to reach the summit. Conquering the highest place on earth, is without any doubt, an impressive achievement to be proud of. The triumph in this daring sports is a global recognition, pushing the boundaries of human endeavour so bestowed by the Creator and subsequently recorded in history for the people to recount. In the same spirit, reaching the moon is a far more risky summit to attempt, rather at times hazardous. However, the significance lies in the global recognition, for the first man on the moon is etched in history for prosperity and on the lips of habitants of this globe; the additional outcome or reward of this achievement is widening the horizon of human beings’ knowledge of the distant world, the selenology, and thus, it is worth the risk taken. These summits have glorified human achievements, but much more significant is the fact that they have not allowed politics to muddy the feats.
Summitry, in international politics, is no less perilous than scaling the very top. Even though summits are significant events, accompanied by calculated ‘risks’ and significantly, politics is part and parcel of this summitry and this aspect cannot be divorced from the whole process. The leaders around the world prepare themselves adequately for the summits, convinced that the interaction with their counterparts shall impact in a positive manner on the issue at hand, whether regional, global or bilateral. In the contemporary world, summits include a diversity of leaders from a minimum of two to infinite and as famously summed up, ‘global summitry is especially attuned to leaders’ summits’. At times, summits or the sideline meetings between leaders could also turn out to be a basket of ‘possibilities’. Nevertheless, modern history cites some famous summits which had broken the ice between leaders of feuding countries, and made the world mostly safer and times more hazardous.
The War Summits: Its Impact
Munich Summit, 1938: The Bitter Appeasement and Thereafter
History records experienced leaders of major powers taking decisions at summits during challenging periods, the ramification of which later turned out to be globally damaging. British Prime Minister Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier, experienced politicians, watched as Germany’s aggressive designs unfolded at the dawn of the year 1938. With Germany having already annexed Austria, these leaders got seriously concerned; Germany’s increasing belligerence and rearmament was a blatant violation of the 1919 Versailles Treaty, which had restricted Germany’s armed forces to the minimum. Subsequently, Chamberlain and Daladier, in their desperate attempt to avert another global war, met German Chancellor Adolf Hitler at Munich on September 30, 1938, a significant date etched in history books. During this significant summit, a pact was signed between these three states, which was later termed as ‘appeasing’ the Germans. The agreement averted the immediate outbreak of war, but encouraged Hitler to order his troops to forcibly occupy Czechoslovakia and subsequently other neighbouring European states, triggering the Second World War. British and French leaders found that Hitler was far more experienced politically and had outwitted his other European counterparts. Chamberlain’s triumphant words that ‘peace with honour’ has been obtained turned out regretfully to be just hollow words; the terms of the agreement were heavily in favour of Germany and politics overpowered the significance of this event to avert another global war. Winston Churchill, then a just member of parliament, while blaming Chamberlain and his policy of ‘appeasement’, aptly summed up the situation, that Chamberlain choose ‘dishonour’ and that he could foresee war with Germany and ‘England would not be ready for it’. The inevitable did happen, and the outcome turned out to have grave consequences for a major part of the globe.
The Placentia Bay, Potsdam and Yalta Summits: Odd Ideologies and Perfect Symphony
The Second World War began on the 1st of September, 1939 and was precipitated by countinous German aggression, which, just prior to September 1, 1939 included the occupation of Poland and the belligerence, something that was primarily due to Britain’s inability to comprehend the scale of Hitler’s insatiated quench to overrun and occupy the whole of Europe. Britain, one of the handful of major powers which could muster the courage and the resources to challenge Germany, was found wanting in that period.
The scale and the swiftness of Germany’s advance in Europe was unprecedented and it was now clear that Britain alone shall not be able to stop this ‘avalanche’. This situation brought the United States and the Soviet Union, the latter being a victim of Hitler’s aggression, to join forces to contain the aggression and then ultimately defeat it. So it was of little surprise that the Second World War witnessed, as famously said ‘politics make strange bedfellows’, the United States, United Kingdom and the Soviet Union – states with opposing ideologies and little to share – found history bringing these ‘odd couples’ on one platform. They were united to defeat Nazi Germany, the Empire of Japan, fascist Italy, the Axis powers and their allies.
While the support of the Soviet Union remained significant during the Second World War, the United States and Britain, cashing upon their special relationship, based upon common language and democratic practices of the two states, held parleys away from the battlefront. Prime Minster Churchill and President Roosevelt held their first summit of the war in August 1941 at Placentia Bay, Canada. The significance of this meeting was the alliance agreeing to the challenges of the war that lead to the destruction of the Axis powers. This summit also looked ahead to the post-war world. Famously known as the Atlantic Charter, which ranged from maintaining the sanctity of state sovereignty, to upholding self-determination, reducing trade restrictions, to forbidding the use of force, and disarmament of aggressor nations. The charter's adherents signed the declaration by the League of Nations on January 1, 1942 which became the basis for the United Nations.
While the war continued unabated in Europe and Asia, the Alliance was becoming more confident and they continued to ‘huddle’. The next summit was expanded to include Stalin. Roosevelt and Churchill, the top leadership heading the Grand Alliance, principally against Germany – the ‘glue’ that bound them – met at the Summit in Yalta, Soviet Union in February 1945. The summit’s historic ‘Declaration on Liberated Europe’ was approved and a pledge made to assist liberated Europe in the creation of ‘democratic institutions of their choice’. This was a pledge which the United States not only kept but also ensured that democratic institutions take root in the war-ravaged Western Europe. Additionaly, the United States, which rose from the ashes of the war to become a superpower had the will, brute power and influence to ensure the implementation of peoples will in a democratic dispensation.
Another momentous decision taken at the Yalta Summit were deliberations for a detailed discussion as to how the United Nations shall actually look like. The three leaders were unanimous to the United States’ plan concerning voting procedures in the Security Council, which had been expanded to five permanent members following the inclusion of France. Each of these permanent members were to hold a veto on decisions being debated in the Security Council. The Alliance decided that before the war ends, it was significant that the leaders put their heads together to take more vital decisions in the post-war period. Premier Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, Winston Churchill and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, and U.S. President Harry Truman met at the summit at Potsdam, Germany, from July 17 to August 2, 1945. The outcome of the summit significantly impacted post-war developments and included agreements to deal with the German economy, punishment for the war criminals, correcting land boundaries and compensations and more importantly, a demand for an ‘unconditional surrender’ from Japan. The historical and highly challenging decisions taken at the Potsdam Summit, were taken by the leaders; these vital decisions could not have been taken at a lower level. Potsdam Summit has made its place in history as the decisions taken at the summit were to deal with the post-World War scenario, and to bring an end to the suffering of a war imposed by overambitious despots. Thus, Potsdam Summit was a turning point in the Second World War, even though it still had Japan to deal with, whose leaders had imposed on their people both ‘declared and undeclared war, which had wracked the country for 14 years.
As soon as the war ended, the wartime allies found that the Soviet Union, one of their key ally’s post-war vision was at variance to that held by the U.S. and Britain. The Soviet Union refused to withdraw its forces from Eastern European states, which it had overrun in pursuit of German forces that were pushed out of Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union, to the utter astonishment and disappointment of the U.S. and Britain, tossed out the sacrosanct Westphalian principles, which Kissinger had aptly summed up as, ‘Stalin now imposed Moscow’s Marxist-Leninist system ruthlessly across Eastern Europe’. For the Soviet Union, there was no place in Europe or in any place on the globe for the Western concept of governance and revolution was the way to remove them.
The Vienna Summit – The First Heat of the Cold War – The Background
The defeat of ‘obstinate’ Germany and an equally stubborn Japan ended on the 1st of September, 1945. As the threat of Germany and Japan receded, like the tides of a devastating flood becoming calm, the ‘common glue’ which had held Soviet Union and the United States together during the war, something not unpredictable, also loosened, unleashing the competing forces of diverse ideologies. The post-World War witnessed the doors of the Cold War opening painfully; and the Soviet Union and the United States, each with their own world outlook marshalled their allies and challenged each other. The initial arena was Europe, with U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Soviet-led Warsaw Pact making their appearance, but the arena gradually enlarged to include Asia and Africa. The world which was still coming to grips with post-world war devastation and had commenced rebuilding, was disappointed to see the United States and the Soviet Union flexing their muscles in Korea in June 1950. The Korean War is rightly regarded as the first proxy conflict during the Cold War. The Western States, led by the United States and Britain, supplemented the United Nations efforts who came in support of South Korea. China and the Soviet Union supported North Korea. The Korean War ended in July 1953 causing millions of casualties. The war ended with a stalemate, with no change in the border. The end of the Korean War did not end the mutual suspicion of the two camps; on one side, the Capitalists, and the other side being the Communists. It was in fact the fear of Communism spreading from North Korea and its domination to a part where especially the United States had freshly made Japan and South Korea two key allies, and could ill afford the ‘iron curtain’ to fall on them.
The Vienna Summit: The Super Power Rivalry: Ideological Schism and Opportunity for the West
History is a witness to diametrically opposite ideologies never reconciling; they are like the two embankments of a river who never meet or as famously said, ‘East is East and the West is West, and the twain shall never meet’. The Soviet Union led the Communist bloc, revolutionary in spirit, even though to the annoyance of China, challenged the United States – the undeclared champion of the West – which was jealousy guarding the evolution of the institutions that had developed over centuries, the values attached to it and what they stood for. With this global scenario continuing to stagnate, and as the mutual suspicion and hostility persisted ultimately leading to the Berlin airlift of 1948, it was but natural that the leaders of the two competing camps – eyeball to eyeball with each other – had little option but to sit on the table to size up each other. The first notable summit in the post-Second World War period took place at Vienna, Austria, on June 4, 1961 between President Kennedy of the United States and Premier Khrushchev of the Soviet Union. Even though the Vienna Summit did not find place in history it deserved, as the reason for the significance of this meeting of the leaders of the two rival superpowers lay in the fact that it provided the opportunity for the desired rapport to develop between Kennedy and Khrushchev. The resultant peace and possibility of a holocaust in the wake of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was averted due to the communication which continued since then. The lessons of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis were very apparent that ‘neither the United States, nor the USSR desired a nuclear war’.
The sixties witnessed the Kennedy and Johnson era of liberal democrats along with their impact on their domestic and global policies. With Vietnam War having taken its toll on President Johnson’s political career who refused to seek reelection, Richard Nixon – a known consertaive Republican – entered the White House in January 1969 as the country’s 36th President. Nixon understood the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the highly mature and statesmanly manner in which Kennedy dealt with it and the lessons drawn from that predicament. Nixon was convinced that the Soviet Union had not come out as a weakling after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and remained not only as an adversary, but also a present and continuous danger. With the war in Vietnam going nowhere and becoming a very serious issue domestically, Nixon – a keen foreign policy realist – surveyed the global canvas and found challenges and opportunities for the U.S. to exploit; his focus was now on the USSR and Communist China. The Soviet Union, as it was about to enter the seventies, experienced serious problems in the region with its Communist Eastern European satellite states whose natural talent to run their economies was being stifled and their economies were being forcibly subsidized. The result was that the USSR’s state-controlled economy was overstretched and drained or strained beyond its capacity. USSR was also facing difficulties with key Middle East states and was in a confrontational mode with Communist China, its neighbour. A schism was clearly appearing within the Communist bloc. China had found Soviet leadership in the Communist movement as ‘overbearing’ and the differences spilled over their borders; China and the USSR forces continue to have border clashes. While the world watched, Nixon and Kissinger – his key foreign policy adviser – ignored the ‘hawks’ in the U.S. political circles and decided that Soviet’s expansionst potential, its continuing support to North Vietnemese – which added to the United States’ woes – and its huge military force were some of the factors which were compelling reasons for Nixon and Kissinger to opt for diplomacy with USSR and also to reach out to China, USSR’s rival, but common supporters of North Vietnam. Nixon’s diplomacy was a mix of ‘coexistance’ and ‘balancing’ bilateralism. The significance of U.S. reaching out to China was grounded in geopolitical and regional realities. For Nixon, the search for a newfound ‘camaraderie’ with China was a compulsion to contain Soviet expansionist designs, extricate U.S. forces from the Vietnam War which showed no end in sight and had the potential to take the bite out of the domestic opposition to the war. This naturally was also a recipe to enlarge Nixon’s domestic and global stature.
The Historical Summit: Nixon’s Encounter with Mao
As the turbulent sixties were coming to a close, Nixon and Kissinger – his key ‘confidante’ – were confident that it was now opportune to play the calculated foreign policy ‘gamble’ in reaching out to China, as it was significant as well as worth the risk. This assessment was based on Nixon’s realist conviction that China, the ‘sleeping giant’ and the most populous state on the globe, cannot be kept isolated, along with the importance and urgency to mend fences with China. So, while the United States continued to remain engaged with the USSR, the only other superpower, it quietly used Pakistan to reach out to China. Nixon and Kissinger were convinced of the depth of China and Pakistan’s friendship and of Pakistan being a reliable bridge.
After a highly secretive backchannel diplomacy of U.S. with China through Pakistan, led by Kissinger and closely monitored by Nixon, famously termed as ‘From a Head, through a Head, to a Head’ led to the historical breakthrough of U.S. with China in July 1971, which stunned the world. This ‘astonishing’ visit laid the basis of President Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972, termed as the ‘Week that Changed the World’. Nixon had a fair command over Mao’s writing, particularly his poetry and was impressed with his philosophical view of the world. Mao, too had a fair amount of understanding of Nixon’s intellect and world view and gave him immence respect on this ‘globally significant summit’. Nixon was thrilled to meet Mao, the ‘great helmsman’ who had led a revolution and ruthlessly changed China from a country with thousands of years of imperial rule, grounded in feudal culture to enter modernity and announced to the world that China has come of age. President Nixon, during this historic visit, shared his thoughts with the media in Beijing terming his visit as “the greatest week in the history of the world since the creation,” and of his visit to the Great Wall and its ‘symbolism’, “As we look at this wall, we do not want walls of any kind between peoples”. Nixon found Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai, not only ready listeners but pragmatic leaders. They agreed that the Soviet expansionist threat was real, that the issue of Taiwan shall not come between the U.S.-China rapprochement and China shall not be a threat to U.S.’ interest in Indo-China, Cambodia and Loas. The Nixon-Mao Summit also reflected China subordinating smaller issues to the larger interest of the state. The summit laid the foundation for the Sino-American relationship and the world which had witnessed years of Sino-American animosity, witnessed the beginning of two of the world’s largest, most influential nations to a ‘variety of new opportunities’. The outcome of Nixon-Mao Summit made the world relatively safer and the people around the world rightly heaved a ‘sigh of relief’. China took its rightful place in the comity of nations and possibly nudged the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table in Paris in 1973 or adopted a neutral stance to the ‘stalmated’ war.
U.S.-USSR Cold War Summits – Cooling the War Heads
The Nixon-Mao dialogue took its place in the history books. The resultant thaw in the Sino-U.S. relations seemed to have had an infectious impact on the superpowers, as the Beijing Summit was followed by a succession of summits of the leaders of U.S. and USSR. The two superpowers and rivals, while determined to dominate the globe, did not lose sight of the consequences of two nuclear armed global giants remaining in a perputal confrontional mode. The ramifications of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis which brought the United States and the USSR within a whisker of a ‘doomsday’ scenario may also have played a role in the wake-up call in Washington and Moscow. The leaders of the two superpowers had no reservations to sit across the table and exchange views, rather they had a clearly focussed agenda: the reduction in the number of nuclear weapons. Both the U.S. and the USSR had, during the sixties and early seventies, embarked on a massive Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) buildup which threatened global peace. With positivity in their minds, President Nixon and Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, held their Moscow Summit in May 1972. It seemed, that the two leaders picked up the thread that U.S. President Johnson and Soviet Premier Kosygin had left when they met at the Glassboro Summit of 1967 which had focussed on mutual concerns on nuclear weapons. The signing of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) were the outcome of the Moscow Summit. The summit is considered one of the hallmarks of détente between the two Cold War adversaries.
The Moscow summit was followed by Nixon’s successor President Ford with Brezhnev in November 1974 at Vladivostok USSR Summit, which resulted in the ‘Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War’ and the much needed ‘détente’ between the USSR and the U.S. This was followed by U.S. President Carter’s meeting with Brezhnev at the 1979 Vienna Summit during which President Jimmy Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed the SALT-II agreement dealing with limitations and guidelines for nuclear weapons. The treaty, which never formally went into effect, proved to be one of the most controversial U.S.-Soviet agreements of the Cold War. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, the successors in the White House and Kremlin, held their groundbreaking summit in Geneva in November 1985. These summits took place at the height of the Cold War and the outcome of these meetings had to have a positive impact on the global mood used to ‘gloom and doom’.
SAARC Summits – ‘Season of Darkness, Spring of Hope’
It is now more than a century that Charles Dickens, in the unforgettable novel, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, used the metaphor of ‘season of darkness, spring of hope’ aptly describing the ambiance and mood in Paris during the French Revolution of 1789. The story connects Paris with London, the commonalities of the manner in which the people were living, the streets and their interconnections. Dickens’ allegory of ‘season of darkness and spring of hope’ can also somehow sum up the history of the summits of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Looking minutely at the summits, they are more connected to Islamabad and New Delhi. In fact, the member states look towards these two capitals as which way the wind shall blow, would it be a ‘season of darkness’ and the summit may not be convened or there shall be a ‘spring of hope’ and the leaders of SAARC member countries can commence making travel plans to meet their counterparts and exchange the much awaited ideas.
Member countries of South Asia, whose countless commonalities bring them together or the commonalities of culture, history, food and religion, which ‘gel’ the member states and their people, had welcomed the inception of SAARC in December 1985 as the ‘much awaited’ regional organisation. Regretfully, the intense Pakistan-India rivalry has many a time marred efforts for the SAARC leaders, to meet at summits, and the ‘effortless’ opportunities were missed which had been provided to the leaders of SAARC member states to discuss complex and even thorny bilateral issues on the sidelines. The flip side is that the regional organisation, if not for the less than normal relationship of Pakistan and India, would have made admirable progress as it holds immense promise of ‘peace, amity, progress and prosperity of all people of South Asia and working together to efficiently lift people out of backwardness, poverty, illiteracy, and disease.
Since 2016, SAARC member states, particularly Pakistan – whose turn it is now to host the 19th SAARC Summit, is still waiting for this opportunity. India’s refusal to attend the summit is a bag full of accusations not backed by any solid resoning but one reason or the other is cited for not attending the summit. India mentions the Uri incident as a major impediment in the way of attending the Islamabad Summit. On the morning of September 18, 2016, 18 security forces personnel were killed in Uri in the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir, and India accused ‘Pakistan’s involvement in cross-border terrorism’. India’s accusation of Pakistan’s involvement in the Uri incident was shared with the media at large, citing little solid proof which could be traced to Pakistan. On October 29, 2016 India announced that it had carried out a ‘surgical strike’ inside Azad Kashmir. Again, India provided no solid proof of such a serious provocation, and in fact the announcement was made with the aim to receive ‘public accolodes’ in India. At the same time, the Modi Government assured the United States that the surgical strike was a ‘pre-emptive strike against ‘terrorists’ and that the chapter on Uri incident was closed. Pakistan’s public response was robust, naturally denying India’s unsubstantiated allegations and the equally false narrative. India’s uncorroborative accusation of Pakistan’s involvement in the ‘cross-border terrorism’ also influenced other smaller neighbouring states who, knowing India’s well known policy of ‘hegemonic browbeating’, also echoed India’s stance and showed their inability to attend the summit. This is surely the ‘season of discontent’, and the ‘spring of hope’ shall have to wait for a bit longer for the harvestors.
Some of the past SAARC Summits were indeed the perfect ‘spring of hope’ and had a far ‘greener pasture’. The 2004 Islamabad Summit can rightly be cited as one gathering of SAARC leaders in which decisions taken were applauded, not only by the member states but also globally. The member states undertook that they shall not allow their territories to be used by terrorists against each other. The stalled Pakistan-India dialogue process was given a new life in the form of the ‘Composite Dialogue’ and the discussion was initiated on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute at the level of the foreign secretaries. This resulted in the initiation of bus service between Srinagar in the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu & Kashmir and Muzaffarabad in Azad Kashmir, even though it was limited to the use by divided families only.
The ‘spring of hope’ for Pakistan-India relations may be in the offing, possibly also leading to Pakistan hosting the 19th SAARC Summit. Since April 2021, there have been some positive developments, composed of positive pronouncements by the political and military leadership of Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan and Chief of the Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Addressing a security dialogue in Islamabad, Prime Minister Imran Khan talked about establishing peace with India and General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s speech had the same spirit and echoed the same positivities, but the content was more broad-based. General Bajwa laid emphasis ‘on a geo-economic vision’ centered around three core pillars: moving towards a lasting and enduring peace within and outside; non-interference of any kind in the internal affairs of our neighboring and regional countries; and boosting intra-regional trade and connectivity’.
Earlier, in an announcement by ISPR, the DGMOs of Pakistan and India “agreed to honour the 2003 ceasefire along the LoC and to address each other’s core issues and concerns which have the propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence”. This proclamation brought the desired optimism and stirred the ‘birds’ yearning for the ‘spring of hope’ which in this case represented people on both sides of the divide who had lost their patience with the continuing ‘ season of discontent’. Added to the twin positive news were reports emanating from the Gulf States that they were encouraging Pakistan-India backchannel to break the bilateral impasse and were very hopeful of a breakthrough. All these developments are a harbinger of hope to the organisers in Pakistan to host the Islamabad Summit. However, the Indian Government’s decision in August 2019, to strip the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomy given to it for seven decades under Article 370 of the Constitution of India has been rejected by the people of that unfortunate region as well as Pakistan and is a serious impediment in the convening of SAARC Summit in Islamabad. Both countries, particularly the policymakers in New Delhi, have to find a way to encourage its counterpart in Islamabad and break the cycle of the ‘season of discontent’ to usher in the ‘spring of hope’ and as aptly summed up in the media recently, ‘It is time for SAARC — whose progress is obstructed by tense Pakistan-India ties — to be revitalised and for its member countries to cooperate with one another’. There is a general consensus that if peace has to sustain, it has to have the support of the people, rather than being led by the people. For this ‘spring of hope’ to emerge, bold decisions have to be initiated by both Pakistan and India.
Xi and Modi Summits: Tyranny of Geography and the Challenges of Coexistence
Much waters have flowed in the Yangtze and Ganga Rivers since the 1962 Sino-India War which brought immence humiliation to India, along with its image as a leader of the non-aligned movement and the third world. China and India are not only neighbours but also rivals in the region and both can be seen competing in the economic and political domains. The continuing competition which is natural and cannot be overcome in the short term is a compelling factor, the ‘tyranny of geography’ and ‘challenges of coexsistence’, which continue to induce the leaders of China and India to hold discussions at informal summits in each other’s countries and on the sidelines of summits. A record of the formal and informal summits show that President Xi and Prime Minister Modi have met at least 18 times since 2014. Prime Minister Modi has visited China five times, the most by any Indian Prime Minister in the last seven decades. The meetings of the two leaders include one on one and on the sidelines of summits, which can be termed as effortless as they are held at a neutral place and leaders do not have to specially travel to each other’s countries and thus can stay away from the special focus of the media. What could be better or rather significant for leaders of the rival neighbours to meet and guage the intentions of each other, their view of the region and the globe at large – issues which continue to keep them apart and those in which possibilities exist to work together.
The summits have resulted in India and China having signed several bilateral agreements and protocols, most significant was the 1993 ‘Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China border areas’, an agreement which came under great stress in the 2020 standoff between the two countries in the disputed Galwan Valley. In the context of summits, President Xi and Prime Minister Modi’s dialogue at the informal summits in each other’s countries have a special significance in the context of preserving peace between China and India and to abide by the realities of geography, geopolitics and in brief the compulsions of coexistence. The informal Summits at Wuhan, China in April 2018 and Mahabalipuram, India in October 2019 took place over the huge gap that had emerged between China and India on issues ranging from border dispute, Belt and Road Initiative, Indian membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group and China’s presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
The focus of attention at the Wuhan Summit of April 2019 was ways to ‘manage differences on the border and not raise tensions’ and look for areas of ‘convergence’. However, the Mahabalipuram Summit of October 2019 was wrongly timed due to Modi government’s utter miscalculation in scrapping Article 370 in August 2019 by which India had governed the Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir region. Naturally, Pakistan’s reaction, as expected was very strong; it downgraded the diplomatic ties with India and moved the United Nations to take notice of the violation of its binding resolution on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. China’s intial response was a guarded one, even though India had also tinkered with the Ladakh region, a disputed territory between China and India, and made it a union territory. Later developments proved otherwise. During this period, President Xi had assured Prime Minister Imran Khan that China was paying "close attention" to the situation in Kashmir and the facts were clear. He also said that he hoped the "relevant parties" could resolve the issue through peaceful dialogue. It was quite disturbing for rival India that President Xi also assured the Prime Minister of Pakistan that the friendship between China and Pakistan was unbreakable and rock-solid despite changes in the international and regional situation.
The Mahabalipuram India Summit of October 2019 focussed on the significance to reduce trade deficit between the two countries. Both the states agreed to set up a new mechanism for issues relating to trade and investment. China is India's second largest trading partner in goods and India is China's largest trading partner in South Asia. However, the differences between the two states on certain vital issues were apparent; China has blocked India's entry in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and has been slow to accept reforms in the United Nations, which may give India a seat in the exclusive permenent category of the United Nations Security Council. There is a dichotomy in the policies of India vying to join UNSC’s permanent category. It continues to violate key components of the United Nations Charter, particularly dealing with the human rights and treatment of the minorities, where its record, to say the least, is appalling.
It was not surprising that the gains made at the Wuhan and Mahabalipuram Summits by China and India to reduce the mutual mistrust evoported in thin air; in June 2020, after nine months of the so called ‘warm summit’ at Mahabalipuram of October 2019, the China-India mutal warmth froze in the harsh climate of Ladakh’s Pangong Lake in the Galwan Valley, which runs across the Line of Actual Control between the two countries. Chinese and Indian soldiers clashed in that territory after the Chinese challenged an Indian Army patrol that it had trespassed Chinese territory in the disputed border region which caused the loss of lives of twenty Indian soldiers. Since then the outcome of a series of meetings between ministers and senior officals of both sides led to the disengagement of forces of China and India from the Pangong Lake but the Chinese are still in a commanding position in the Ladakh region.
The China-India standoff in the Ladakh Valley is a legacy of the early years of independent India and the creation of modern China. India’s attitude towards border demarcation with China can be summed up as illogical, inflexible and belligerent since 1947 and this attitude goes against the very grain or spirit of coexistence. This rigidness has not surprisingly damaged India’s image, especially after the 1962 drubbing. In seven decades, China and India have not been able to come to an understanding on a fully demarcated border, for which India takes the major share of the blame. Both India and China lay claim to the Aksai Chin plateau; India considers Aksai Chin plateau as part of the ‘Union Territory of Ladakh’, which was carved out of the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir on August 2019 and China considers the plateau part of its Xinjiang province and Tibet. China also claims Arunachal Pradesh as part of South Tibet. Pakistan and China showed far more maturity, understanding the significance of putting the colonial era in the past, negotiated and signed the border agreement in March 1963 laying the basis of mutual trust. On the other hand, the disputed border continues to cloud China and India’s relations, and the mutual mistrust refuses to fade away.
The people around the world, especially in Europe and parts of South East Asia, had hardly heaved a sigh of relief at the end of the devastating Second World War in September 1945 and were busy in rebuilding their lives, contributing to the rebuilding of their shattered countries that another menace, the ‘Cold War’, which was to divide the globe, appeared on the horizon to demoralise the people and their spirits. It was similar to black clouds having the potential to destroy a standing crop. The two world wars had generally exhausted and sapped the energy of France and the United Kingdom, the then leading colonial powers, in their capacity to govern their vast colonies. Internal revolt, both political and armed, in the colonies was the last nail in the coffin of the colonial powers. The global power vacuum created by the gradual decline of France and Britain was filled by other more powerful states. The filling of the vacuum, a natural phenomon, was done by the global rise of the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the two modern superpowers.
The ‘new’ superpowers’ awesome strength was a combination of huge economies, and massive armed forces, equipped with a variety of lethal nuclear weapons. While the assertion of their respective strength gradually continued by the superpowers who enlarged their political influence in different parts of the globe. However, it also dawned on the leadership of the United States and USSR that it is in their interest to open a channel of dialogue with their counterparts. This ‘realist’ approach gave birth to the revival of a series of summits the leaders would hold. The advantage for the U.S. and the USSR was that their dialogue was, in a manner, a continuation of where they had left as ‘forced’ allies during the war, but now the dialogue was as heads of two rival camps. While the outcome of the majority of the summits of the two superpowers, which were conducted on an equal footing, mutual respect may not have been fully positive, but the significance of the summits which did succeed lay in the manner of making this world far more safer, which appeared to be the shared objective of the leadership of the two superpowers.
It is very rare that the outcome of the summits end in total failures or reflect negativity. The reasons are grounded in realism that the leaders are endowed with immense influence and power, and that they meet out of compulsion, a sense of duty and they exercise their enormous power to lead the policy in a direction that they trust is in the country’s interest. The discussions in the summit are rarely focussed minutely on issues, rather deliberations are a ‘broad brush’ on subjects of mutual or global interest. The reason for a broad discussion by the leaders in the summit is that the ‘sherpas’ (Personal representative of a head of state or government who prepares the summits) do the ground work of taking out the ‘chaff from the seeds’, i.e., hold detailed discussions before the summit and after the summit, away from the glare of the media, which then allows the leaders – when they meet at the summit – to focus on the ‘meat’ of the discussions.
It is natural that the summits of the superpowers, prior to the end of the Cold War and even now of the leaders of the United States and China, the emerging superpowers, attracts maximum media glare and global attention. However, summits of the leaders of China and India or Pakistan and India, rival regional states in their own right, attract a fair amount of media attention and publicity. A summit of U.S.’ President Biden with Chinese President Xi or the much awaited 19th SAARC Summit in Islamabad is bound to get immense media and global attention, and the significance lies in the meeting of the leaders and the outcome of those summits.
There is lament that summits hosted or encouraged by a succession of U.S. Presidents to resolve the Palestanian issue went to waste, either due to the rigid approach of the Israeli leaders or missed opportunities by the Palestanian leaders. The result is the unprecedented mayhem being inflicted by Israel on the unarmed Palestinians in East Jerusalem. While the leaders of Pakistan and some Muslim countries have voiced strong condemnation of the Israeli brutalities, the fact that few key states which had ‘pathed up’ with Isreal are not in a position to force Israel to end its unwarranted aggression on the Palestanians. It is here that one is reminded of the ‘missed’ opportunites at summits of an acceptable resolution of the Palestanian issue and a reduction in their suffering. The so-called two summits of President Trump and Kim Jong–un, the North Korean leader, even though significant in their own standing, turned out to be just ‘photo ops’, as the outcome had nothing concerte to report. It seemed that tangible ground work which was required of such meetings and the political will to overcome decades of mutual mistrust was missing.
The globe is witnessing a horde of human suffering waiting possibly for the summits to be convened for them to end. The suffering ranges from the untold brutalities inflicted by Indian forces on unarmed Kashmiris in the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir, the fate of the Rohyingas to the stalled implementation of the Doha Accord on Afghanistan. It may be rightly said that the meetings of leaders at summits, especially of rival states’ efforts to defuse tensions, can be termed optimistic but conditioned on the ‘requirement of a leadership which is patient in his or her diplomacy, builds confidence and has the courage and foresight to compromise’. Margaret MacMillan, a leading historian looking at the various global disputes and the possible meeting of the leaders at summits to focus on them, tried to rope in the past to look at the present and future and aptly summed it up that ‘weak and indecisive leaders may allow bad situations to get worse as they did in 1914.” Jumping to the Second World War, she opined that determined and ruthless ones can create wars as they did in 1939. Paying tributes to the wise and brave leaders, she was confident that they may guide the world through the storms, but conditioned it with the leaders having read history. In this context, the relevant advice can be conveyed to the leaders of Pakistan and India, China and India, the United States and China, who are at loggerheads for some time.
The writer holds a Masters in Political Science (Punjab University) and Masters in Diplomatic Studies (UK). He has served in various capacities in Pakistan’s missions abroad and as an Ambassador to Vietnam and High Commissioner to Malaysia. He is on the visiting faculty of four mainstream public universities in Islamabad and Adviser to the India Centre at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad.
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