After an interlude of some fifty-five years China is making another historic overture toward India. The India-China relations are once again at a crossroads.
The then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai took the initiative to visit Delhi in 1960 even as storm clouds were gathering in the horizon over the disputed border between the two countries with a proposal to settle the differences in a spirit of give-and-take to mutual benefit. India spurned the offer and the rest is history.
The forthcoming visit to Delhi on Sunday by the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as the special envoy of President Xi Xinping – an extraordinary gesture in diplomatic terms – is taking place in vastly different circumstances. But a common thread runs through all the same. As was the case 54 years ago, India has some crucial choices to make today and the trajectory of the Sino-Indian relationship might shift depending on the choice.
Beijing has virtually displayed its eagerness to get off to a flying start with the right-wing Hindu nationalist Indian government led by Narendra Modi that has come to power after the recent election. No sooner than the result of general election came to be known, top officials in Beijing – State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang – conveyed China’s message of greetings. Prime Minister Li Keqiang was the first foreign head of government to phone up Modi after he took over as India’s prime minister.
The Chinese officials reiterated China’s keenness to work with the Modi government and asserted that promotion of the relations with India constitute one of the priorities of China’s foreign policy. The Chinese statements underlined that the relationship goes beyond the bilateral scope, and is of global and strategic significance.
The alacrity with which these political and diplomatic signals were transmitted to the new leadership in Delhi can be viewed on one plane as genuinely borne out of positive expectations. But on deeper probing, the impression tends to get more varied, given the nature of the interplay of forces surrounding the emergent power structure in India and taking into account the regional and international situation.
Modi, of course, is by no means a stranger to the corridors of power in Beijing. As the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, he visited China thrice – in 2006, 2007 and 2011. Even prior to holding any public office in India he is known to have visited China once. Those were highly uncertain times in Modi’s political career when he carried the stigma of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the western world treated him like a pariah. Despite his tough exterior as the ‘iron man’, it is possible to discern that Modi is also given to emotions and, conceivably, the scars of those tumultuous years when he hankered for political acceptance but was considered an ‘untouchable’ both in India and in the West, cannot easily disappear. Suffice to say, Modi cannot but look back with some sense of satisfaction that the Chinese government held his hand without reserve.
Beijing of course greeted Modi with great courtesy during his visits and in 2011 top Chinese officials received him at the Great Hall of People, a high honor that is usually accorded only to visiting heads of states and governments. Would China have concluded as far back as three years ago that Modi was destined to rise and rise in a very near future and/or would shine on the firmament of India’s national life for years to come?
It is hard to say. Another plausible explanation could also be that Modi did impress his Chinese hosts as a rare Indian politician – decisive and quick, pragmatic but forceful and obsessively result-oriented. The Chinese companies operating in Gujarat would surely have relayed back favorable impressions of the economic dynamism and vibrancy of the state. Modi not only created a level playing field for Chinese businessmen but also welcomed them with open arms and urged them to bring in investment and create wealth.
According to folklore, when he visited China, Modi carried a red visiting card with embossed Chinese characters and made video presentation with commentary in Mandarin. It’s little surprise if his Chinese hosts took note that unlike Indian politicians who are generally loathe to behave (publicly at least) as salesmen for India’s business and industry, Modi had no such qualms.
Without doubt, there could be high expectations in Beijing that Modi’s government will be ‘business-friendly’ and that many of those doors in Delhi’s corridors of power on which Chinese businessmen knocked over the years but were denied entry or turned away (often on specious pleas of ‘national security’) would now open. The government-owned China Daily abandoned its reserve to comment in an editorial that there was «unprecedented optimism» in China over what Modi’s government could do for India’s «growth potential».
The newspaper explained this in terms of the perception in China that Modi’s «preoccupation with development» echoed China’s «own experiences and development philosophy». It went on to say, «A similar belief in and focus on development has brought China where it is today, and such a commitment to development can create an economic miracle next door in the world’s second most-populous country». The editorial concluded that as two developing countries «pestered by wealth and development gaps, China and India can work together when it comes to development» and contrary to «western rhetoric», the two countries have «by and large managed their differences well over the decades».
Indeed, there is merit in the argument. Modi’s mandate rests primarily on the ‘development’ plank he presented during his election campaign, tapping into the popular anger over soaring food prices and massive unemployment. Modi swept to power on the hope he held out that he could recapture India’s growth story. Modi would be conscious that the ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party’s real base of support is extremely narrow (winning 171.5 million votes or 31% of share of popular vote in a country of 1.4 billion people) and, therefore, a great challenge lies ahead for him to show quick results before any disenchantment sets in in the popular perceptions.
The Chinese statements have alluded to Modi’s priorities of governance and reform. The heart of the matter is that Chinese investment and trade could help Modi revive India’s economic growth. On a visit to Chengdu, China, in 2011, Modi reportedly told his audience, «Our job in the government is to create the right kind of environment for you to come and enjoy your creativity».
Beyond this, Chinese pundits have also mused that Mod’s nationalist credentials might make it easier for him to make a diplomatic breakthrough in the Sino-Indian relations. One Chinese political commentator even prophesied that Modi is «likely to become India’s Nixon» – drawing comparison with the hardcore anti-communist US president’s dramatic bid for the US-China rapprochement in the early 1970s.
According to the Indian foreign ministry, during the telephonic conversation with Li, Modi underscored his resolve «to utilize the full potential of our Strategic and Cooperative Partnership with China» and expressed keenness «to work closely with the Chinese leadership to deal with any outstanding issues in our bilateral relations by proceeding from the strategic perspective of our development goals and long-term benefits to our peoples».
However, beneath the India-China bonhomie that has gushed out in the past few days in the wake of Modi’s emergence as India’s prime minister, there are strong undercurrents, too. In fact, how much of the bonhomie is for real and how much of it is carefully put on is even hard to tell. Clearly, there are extraneous factors also that come into play, in particular, the prospects of the US-India strategic ties under Modi’s watch.
Nothing brings this home more starkly than that the US state department’s top official dealing with India, Assistant Secretary Nisha Desai Biswal is also scheduling a trip to India, which happens to overlap with the dates of Foreign Minister Wang’s visit as China’s special envoy. Biswal, an ethnic Gujarati, will be camping in Delhi for four days and she has no fixed agenda except to touch base with the new power centres under Modi’s dispensation. She enjoys a head start over Wang insofar as the ethnic Gujarati community in the US is known to be highly influential with the circles that surround Modi.