co-authored with Alka Acharya and originally published as , ‘Modi, Xi and Great Expectations’, Rediff.com, 17 September 2014.
Symbolism is often as important as the essentials in conveying the magnitude of an event – especially when the eyes of the world are focused on it. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to receive the Chinese President Xi Jinping in Ahmedabad and establish a personal rapport in a culturally resonant setting with brisk economic undertones, before moving on to the capital, New Delhi, has certainly added the element which elevates the tenor and adds a dash of élan to this meeting between two of the most important leaders of Asia today. It will likely set the template for the relations between the two countries, at least for the next five years. The statements and body language of both these leaders will thus be closely scrutinized.
In the case of China, in part due to the nature of leadership succession, Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and consequently, also as President of China, will likely serve two five-year terms. Xi thus comes to India wearing three hats, which makes him unprecedentally powerful in the Chinese political system: General Secretary, Chairman of the country’s top military body, the Central Military Commission, and President of the PRC. He is thus in a position to leave a strong mark on foreign policy as well.
To all extents and purposes, the favoured template as far as both leaderships are concerned, is the economic one. Undoubtedly, Modi’s visit to Japan shortly before Xi’s arrival, was carefully scrutinised in China where he won a commitment of approximately US$35 billion worth of investments over the next five years. This was duly acknowledged, politically, by Modi’s reference to their common cause against “expansionism”. Surprisingly, the Chinese reacted but they deflected the blame on the Japanese attempts to drive a wedge between China and India. However, Modi’s Japan visit certainly imparted an impetus to the Chinese to try and outshine the Japanese – economically. The expectations thus are that China would announce an investment package of US$100 billion or more in India, over the next five years. Strategic analysts have made much of the Sino-Japanese rivalry in this context, the fallout of which will be positive for India. The proposed funds would be a boon for its infrastructure needs and hence India would welcome foreign investment from wherever it comes.
But there are other interesting parallels as well, which also raises expectations of the start of a new dimension in the Indian economic and commercial diplomacy. The fact that Modi landed first in Kyoto during his visit to Japan and Xi is landing in Gujarat first and that Modi’s home state is being heavily targeted by both Chinese and Japanese investments suggests the growing importance of Indian states and Chinese provinces in foreign economic policy if not also foreign policy in general. Indeed, the fact that both Modi and Xi earned their national positions on the back of their records as administrators at the state/ provincial level, suggests that this factor is here to stay. Xi Jinping was Governor of Fujian Province and Party Secretary in both Zhejiang Province and Shanghai and is believed to have visited India during one of his provincial tenures. Modi, it is well-known by now, visited China four times during his time as Chief Minister of Gujarat.
Their state/provincial-level experience suggests that Modi and Xi will bring a different approach and experience to their leadership at the national level as well as in their interactions with each other. Thus, much on the lines of the agreement between Kashi (Varanasi) and Kyoto signed during Modi’s trip to Japan, it is expected that there will also be more sister-city or sister-state/province arrangements between the Indian and Chinese sides. It will mainly be at the sub-national level – and not always at the national level – that future economic action – including investments, tourism and people-to-people contacts – will have its greatest impact. Meanwhile, Chinese investments will flow in India, not only from the large State-Owned Enterprises, but also those owned by various provinces in China. And this is likely to bring both advantages and complications in the bilateral relationship, for which Indian leaders, officials and analysts should be ready.
Meanwhile, what of the boundary dispute? A right-wing nationalist BJP government at the centre in New Delhi and a Communist Party in China, who rely heavily on nationalism to tide over their various respective domestic troubles, suggest that the new leaderships in both India and China will have to address the concerns raised by domestic public opinion with regard to the boundary dispute. On the other hand, the expectation that a breakthrough could surface, is not so far-fetched either. It may be recalled that it was under a BJP-led coalition that the NDA government in 2003 under Vajpayee’s Premiership brokered a paradigm shift in addressing the boundary dispute. However, any major movement towards resolution remains unlikely as long as Tibet remains a politically unstable region and there is uncertainty about what follows once the Dalai Lama passes from the scene. A degree of optimism stems from the fact that both Modi and Xi are perceived as strong and bold leaders and given the strong popular support for either leader in their own country, they also have the opportunity to summon the political will necessary to achieve a resolution of the boundary dispute.
But by far the most promising arena that provides maximum opportunities for effecting rapid and major transformation is an expansion in the people-to-people contacts between their two countries. Indeed, as the first leaders of their respective countries born after Indian Independence and Chinese Liberation, Modi and Xi would be expected to have the ability to overcome the traditional mindsets and the hierarchical nature of their official/bureaucratic establishments. The resultant freeing up of some of the irrational barriers in the way of the regular and frequent interactions and exchanges would energize the relationship in unprecedented ways. If the expected expansion in the relationship has to be efficiently and effectively managed, it would be necessary to institutionalize contacts also at the level of middle-level and junior-level officers and officials instead of limiting them to only the top echelons, which would also go a long way in developing greater goodwill and confidence in the relationship.
During his visit, Xi Jinping will also be trying to promote his new Silk Roads policy. Both the Silk Road Economic Belt through Central Asia and the Maritime Silk Road will require Indian cooperation and goodwill to succeed. India will however also need to be active and alert to the consequences of the Chinese push. President Xi is passing through Maldives and Sri Lanka during his South Asia sojourn and is actively courting them to becoming full and active participants in China’s Maritime Silk Road. New Delhi will, therefore, have to come up with its own big ideas to balance the Chinese initiative or to participate in such initiatives in a manner that the Silk Roads are a more equal partnership between India and China.
Meanwhile, the cancellation of Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan has pleased many Indian commentators and is being interpreted as a sign that Beijing is giving up its hyphenation of India and Pakistan. The visit has been cancelled ostensibly because of the ongoing protests in Islamabad but it is actually only a matter of time before it takes place. Despite the fact that terrorism and violence has flown from Pakistan into China’s troubled Xinjiang’s province, Beijing still does not have an effective means to stop the flow except by relying still further on Pakistan. Pakistan is also still seen as an important player especially in the context of Afghanistan, where China has been increasing its economic investments over the years.
Talking of Afghanistan, as the US forces drawdown in that country and it still remains unable to declare a final winner of its recent presidential elections, it is expected that India and China will increase their cooperation to ensure that the country does not tip over the brink again. In this context, India’s recent application to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization holds considerable significance. China is chary of going it alone in Afghanistan or of taking on any of the US’ onerous responsibilities by itself. The SCO seems to be its preferred instrument for the management of the Afghan/AfPak problem. India too might find advantage in a multilateral organization, especially when it has no direct geographical links to the region. The SCO also offers an opportunity for India and China to come to a new kind of modus vivendi in so far as dealing with Pakistan is concerned.
India and China appear to be commencing a qualitatively new phase in their relationship. The security challenges that both perceive from the other and the concerns stemming from the unresolved issues are not going to just disappear – they will have to be – as they have indeed been hitherto – negotiated with a degree of maturity, keeping the larger picture firmly in the frame. The issues must not be reduced to balancing one against the other. Both leaders have made many statements underscoring their responsibilities to their own people as well as to the developing World at large; many initiatives where both can play transformative roles are already underway. The expectation undergirding all of the above is whether Modi and Xi will grasp the opportunity offered by this visit.