In receiving Chinese President Xi Jinping in Ahmedabad on Wednesday and hosting a private dinner for him on the banks of the Sabarmati river , Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a chance to break the mould of Indian diplomacy towards China. For too long, India’s summit-level engagement with China has been too formal, with little space for relaxed conversation. With Modi at the helm in New Delhi for five years and Xi slated to rule China for nine, it makes sense to add a touch of political informality and personal intimacy to the interaction between the two leaderships.
China’s political investment in Modi when he was chief minister of Gujarat, at a time when America and Europe were unwilling to touch him with a bargepole, has generated rare personal goodwill for Beijing with an Indian leader. The ease of doing business in Gujarat during Modi’s tenure saw many Chinese companies set up shop in the state. Since his election as prime minister, the Chinese media has written glowingly about the “Gujarat model” of economic development and the likelihood of its extension to the rest of the country.
China is also conscious of the fact that Modi is the first Indian leader since Rajiv Gandhi to have a majority in the Lok Sabha and the popularity at home to address difficult issues in bilateral relations and seize the possibilities for changing the nature of the bilateral ties.
Beijing recognises that Delhi’s political will has been burnished under Modi and is willing to overlook, at least for the moment, the PM’s statements on “Chinese expansionism” and his outreach to Japan and the United States. In agreeing to spend time with Modi on his birthday in Gujarat, Xi is signalling that he is ready to build a long-term personal relationship with the Indian PM.
Hard-nosed realists around the world are impressed with Modi’s diplomatic flair seen during his visits to Nepal and Japan. But they ask if Modi can go beyond the atmospherics and bring about a substantial change in the relationship with China. Here again, Modi has the opportunity to introduce change. In his address to the Japanese businessmen in Tokyo earlier this month, Modi declared that he is a Gujarati and commerce runs in his blood. This emphasis on business and deal-making may help Modi get India out of its current deadlock with China.
Consider, for example, the contradictions: India has traditionally employed grandiose political rhetoric that talked of heralding the Asian century and transforming the world order in collaboration with China. This soaring rhetoric on abstract goals was accompanied by a reluctance to openly acknowledge and discuss differences with China on a range of bilateral and regional issues.
Delhi also finds it hard to do such simple things as liberalising the visa regime for Chinese businessmen, journalists and scholars. Delhi does not let Beijing set up more cultural centres in India. And when it came to Chinese investments in India, Delhi found multiple ways of saying “no”. Delhi has also been reluctant to open up overland trade corridors across the Great Himalayas in the north or the east.
It is not that there were no problems associated with all these issues. They could have been resolved with political will. Modi’s self-assurance, it is possible to imagine, will help Delhi craft a new approach to Beijing that will let India stand firm on core national security concerns and yet be practical in widening the areas of economic cooperation.
In inviting massive Chinese investments across a wide range of sectors, Modi might be opening the door for a new policy towards China. While Modi might be tempted to use the rhetoric of his predecessors, he should recognise that building a new world order with China could wait for the moment. For now, the priority must be to leverage the Chinese economic strength to accelerate India’s own growth.
In seeking greater Chinese participation in the Indian economy, Modi would only emulate China’s pragmatism. Despite the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s and 1940s, Beijing eagerly sought Japanese investments to build modern China after initiating reforms in 1978. Just two decades after fighting the costly Korean War (1950-53) with the US, China warmed up politically to Washington in the 1970s and benefited immensely from economic cooperation with America since the late 1970s.
Deepening commercial engagement with China may not necessarily lead to either the resolution of the boundary dispute that continues to hobble the bilateral relationship or end Delhi’s growing competition with Beijing for strategic influence in the Indo-Pacific. Modi should walk and chew gum at the same time; he could grow business ties with China while addressing simultaneously the multiple political contentions with Beijing.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’