BRICS summit: Will PM Modi, Xi Jinping meet in South Africa?

If they meet, it will be an icebreaker ahead of Xi’s visit to India next month

[File] Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping | PIB [File] Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping | PIB

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be in the same room at the BRICS summit in South Africa this week. The question is whether they will speak. 

News reports quoting the Chinese ambassador to South Africa, Chen Xiaodong, suggested that a meeting was on the cards. “I am confident that as two nations, two countries, we will have direct talks, direct meetings,’’ he has been quoted as telling reporters. The ministry of external affairs, however, did not confirm the meeting. At a special briefing, the foreign secretary said that the bilateral meetings for Modi were still being finalised. 

If the meeting does materialise, this will certainly be an icebreaker when President Xi comes to Delhi early next month for the G20 meeting. There would be considerable pressure on both leaders domestically for a tangible outcome—especially as they meet on Indian soil. 

This is not the first time that the two leaders have come face-to-face after the skirmish in Galwan in 2020. They attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, but did not speak. At the leaders summit in G20 at Bali summit, however, the two leaders did more than just exchanging pleasantries. 

A read out issued by Wang Yi, Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China, after his meeting with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, claimed that both Modi and Xi had reached a “consensus’’ in Bali. The read out suggested that the leaders reached “an important consensus” on stabilizing the China-India relations.

The MEA too, clarified its position. “During the Bali G20 meeting, Prime Minister and President Xi, at the conclusion of the dinner hosted, exchanged courtesies and spoke about the need to stabilize bilateral relations,’’ said spokesperson Arindam Bagchi at the weekly press briefing last month.

While there is uncertainty about whether the two leaders will meet, there is no ambiguity as to how important India regards BRICS. India “considers it an important expression of global multipolarity’’, said foreign secretary Vinay Kwatra. The prime minister will travel to South Africa on Tuesday. This is the first in-person BRICS summit in the past three years.

The summit comes at a time when India has chosen to maintain a tightrope walk between the West and Russia. One of the biggest issues that will be discussed is the expansion of BRICS.  But the admission of new members in the BRICS club is complicated. Even as China pushes for expansion, India wants to maintain a delicate balance. While India has supported the expansion, there is concern that China may choose to tilt the balance of the forum in its favour. Among the countries waiting to join are Argentina, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Iran and Venezuela. 

“We have been clear, we have a positive intent and an open mind,’’ said Kwatra. BRICS works on consensus, he pointed out. 

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