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Modi’s China Odyssey

Updated: May 29, 2015 11:25 pm

It was a tryst which the world was focussed on. China and India, the two most populous nations and emerging giants in Asia, were meeting and the outcome of their talks would impact the world econo-mies, politics and the trends for the future. The reputation of being tough and frank preceded Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while political pundits said that more positives than negatives were expected. So what did Modi achieve?

Of all Modi’s ventures abroad, 19 in total, his China trip was the most challenging. He believes in the efficacy of personal diplomacy, which was tested severely in his discussions with the Chinese President XI Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. The baggage of the past, the distrust between the two countries since 1962 and the occasional intrusion by the Chinese soldiers along the Himalayan border and then the recent tension over Beijing’s plan to build $46 billion dollar economic corridor in the PoK cast long and deep shadow over meetings between the two countries. The demarche issued by India over the proposed corridor just a few days before the start of the China visit deepened fears of China reverting back to its normal stand-offish attitude and would be reticent to sign many agreements.

But when Modi landed in the historic city of Xian, the Chinese President breaking precedents was present to receive him. It raised hope that the Chinese would not be their usual mysteriously stoical. The handshakes with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang were also warm and friendly and the body language relaxed and the overall atmosphere one of comfort. The ‘selfie’ of the two prime ministers at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing was the first in the annals of Indian and Chinese histories. Whether at the historical city of Xian or in public venues at Beijing, the affable curiosity among ordinary Chinese was palpable.

Three things were significant and influenced the pattern of meetings. First, Modi met the Chinese as equals and never tried to show that everything between the two was normal. In fact, he reiterated at different forums that there were ‘sharp edges in the relations—this admission was made even while articulating a vision of Asia.

Two the visit created an unprecedented interest in ordinary Chinese who are normally least interested in visits of foreign dignitaries. This was noted in the diplomatic circles. Modi as it is believes that an increased contact between nationals of different countries helps in building trust. A fast decider, sensing the enthusiasm in general public, Modi announced his decision to extend electronic visas to Chinese. This was welcomed by China. It is expected that it too would reciprocate soon.

Three, the Chinese summed up Modi as a decisive leader, a doer who is likely to be the leader for a longer period. Thus, the raft of agreements and MoUs could be signed. The former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran noted: The measure of what Modi was able to achieve is evident in the change in tone both in the Chinese official and semi-official media and in social media before, during and after the visit. On the eve of the visit, positive coverage was interspersed with negative and sometimes even abusive comment. The level of enthusiasm increased with each day of the visit. One Chinese analyst even compared this to United States President Richard Nixon’s path-breaking visit to China in 1972.

He recalled: In a different age, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had also been accorded an unprecedented welcome in 1954 by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. In the latter case, the promise of a defining relationship was soon shattered on the rocks of competing nationalisms and territorial claims. The Tibet issue, which first erupted in 1959 with the Dalai Lama seeking shelter in India, generated strategic distrust, which led to the war in 1962 and the China-Pakistan alliance.

He raised the question, Does the Modi visit carry the potential of reversing this negative dynamic? Will style and symbolism lead towards substance? Saran’s conclusion was positive. The fact is, and we all by no know it that Modi also believes in the efficacy of strong economic and trade relations as an instrument of reducing, if not eliminating, strategic distrust.

This is the reason for giving unprecedented prominence to the India-China Economic Forum of top-level CEOs. Modi while personally welcoming Chinese investors eloquently appealed to them for investing in India under the Make in India scheme. He laid stress on general manufacturing industries rather than hi-tech ones because the former generate more employment. It was to the credit of Modi’s diplomacy and his skill of persuasion that 24 agreements and 21 business-related MoUs were concluded. Combined, they are worth $30 billion.

Trade deficit has been increasing, but Modi with soon-to-come Anti-Dumping may succeed in persuading China to invest heavily into India. It has already committed $ 20 billion Investment in India. That’s nearly Rs 140,000 crore. Then setting up consulates in Chengdu in China and Chennai in India will be helpful in promoting ties with China’s important southwest region.

So far so good. But relations between countries have to be sustained for a long period of time. And to ensure that firming up the achievements in bilateral trade would be vital. Saran suggested that it would be better if economic and trade relations are pursued on their own merit. We have witnessed how close economic relations between China and Japan have not prevented acute political tensions from erupting, he says and warns of a similar eruption. The ground realities that hold the relations back remain, with the danger that, as in the past, in a moment of unexpected crisis or unintended confrontation, relations can once again plunge into hostility.

But he commends the fact that what Modi in the visit achieved is a very frank articulation of these sources of tension, that is, the border issue, China’s activities in Pakistan and in our sub-continental neighbourhood, the issue of stapled visas, the ballooning trade deficit and market barriers in China, and the continuing overhang of the Tibet issue. Hopefully, peace would hold on.

China has much to offer in terms of capital and technology.

A joint working group to look into ways of addressing the persistent trade deficit has been announced. So, much could be achieved because many irritants were not included in the agenda. For instance, there was no reference to the two sides engaging in a maritime security dialogue, which has been agreed in principle but not yet followed up on. This means that India still harbours reservations about the OBOR and there remain possibilities of confrontation emerging as the respective naval footprints of the two sides continue to expand and intersect in the South China Sea and in the Indian Ocean.

The next country Modi visited after China was South Korea. In this Act East he could get $100 billion for infrastructure, smart cities, railways and power. Modi’s foray to the East has started a beginning of a new chapter in relations between Asian nations. This has also created an ambience to settle political differences peacefully. No country, not even China would like to jeopardise the prospect of a united Asia becoming the most influential bloc.

Modi has already said that with India and China together this century would belong to Asia. All this possibility is due to Modi’s strategy of building relations with one major power to enhance India’s leverage with other major powers. His success in China is largely due to the gains India made, thanks to Modi’s reaching out to the US, on one hand, and Japan, on the other. He has also asserted India’s interests in the Indian Ocean with high-profile visits to Sri Lanka, Mauritius and the Seychelles. Modi has to ensure a positive follow through so that all the agreements and promises made are translated into practical action. Hopefully, he will do it, as he is a doer.

By Vijay Dutt

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