President Xi’s India visit –the promise and the hurdles
President Xi Jinping’s comes calling to India – Why the sojourn could be path-breaking
On Wednesday, September 17, 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping set foot in Ahmedabad in Gujurat, the place from where Prime Minister Modi leapt to power in Delhi. The visit of a Chinese head of state to India has come after a long gap of eight years, although the two countries are neighbours. Ever since Modi came to power, he has invested a lot of his time to reclaim India’s role in Asia and beyond as a power to be reckoned with. The Ministry of External Affairs has shed its tepid façade that continued all through the ten years of Dr. Manmohan Singh’s rule. Modi, a visionary, has pushed his advisers to think of new ways to make his focus on development shape India’s approach to China. The post-1962 mindset of seeing every Chinese move as adversarial is clearly on its way out. Now, economics and political co-operation will be the bedrocks of India’s approach to China.
Can the two leaders bury the hatchet and work jointly to supplement each others economic growth in an atmosphere of friendly competition? Can the old acrimony replace acceptance of the fact that the border issue can best be resolved not through wars, but through negotiations? After all, two of the largest armies in the world with nuclear weapons and missiles can’t fight because friendly diplomacy failed.
China sells to India much more than it buys from it. China’s humongous production infrastructure sells a very wide variety of goods to India out-pricing the local manufacturers. China is India’s largest trading partner, but the trade is heavily weighted in China’s favour. Prime Minister Modi will surely press his guest to find ways to narrow the trade gap. Some brain-storming and bargaining will inevitably take place, but it is fare to assume that China might open up its markets to Indian companies provided India does the same reciprocally. Beijing has already showed its willingness to build two industrial parks. This will bring in billions of dollars of Chinese investments into India.
The other key area of mutual interest is the possibility of use of Chinese investment and know-how to upgrade India’s creaking rail infrastructure. Possibly, the Chinese side will be sounded on India’s desire to have a bullet train network linking two or more metros. The Japanese are also in the fray for this project.
The eminent China specialist Professor Swaran Singh of the Center for International Politics in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) says, “This visit presents a unique opportunity for Chinese industry to invest in India before Japan does. China will try and find a foothold for investment and technology transfer in this window.”
Modi had recently gone on a state visit to Japan. Japan has a long-festering conflict with China. Yet, the two countries have a vibrant commercial relationship with goods and services flowing back and forth un-hindered. Modi had this model in mind when he went to Japan. His visit was applauded in the Indian media as productive and successful. Buoyed by the winds of optimism blowing in India after Modi’s assuming charge as the Prime Minister, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged $34 billion in investments to India. The visit greatly enhanced Indo-Japan ties. The two leaders, Modi and Abe, had good chemistry going between them. Modi has already met Xi during the BRICS summit in Fortaleza earlier this year. Can this visit of President XI result in a similar personal bonding between the two? The picture will be clear in the succeeding days.
Professor Singh states that both of them see themselves at the helm for at least a decade. They will strive to change the course of the bilateral relations that has remained cold and insipid for decades.
Mending the ruptured geo-strategic relation between the two countries is going to be a tough nut to crack. The unresolved border issue will continue to cast its shadow on any commercial and political move from either side to come closer. China has maritime disagreements with almost all countries in the South-China Sea region. India’s attempts to prospect for oil at the invitation of the Vietnamese government have irked the Chinese who feel the area comes under Chinese sovereignty. But, much more serious is the Chinese claim over the Indian border state Arunanchal Paradesh. The other issue where Pakistan is also involved is the Aksai Region of Kashmir, which India feels Pakistan virtually ‘gifted’ to China. However, it is becoming apparent that these issues will be not in the agenda of talks between the two leaders. There might be some discrete talk, but that will not be open to the media. Instead commerce, economy, politics and cultural matters will be in the centre stage. This approach is pragmatic and should yield results.
Lt. Gen. Ata Hasnain, a former Indian army officer who went to China as part of a delegation, reveals that the Chinese, these days, show little interest on the border issue, quite in contrast to the Indian stance. He feels that China wishes to continue following a dual track policy of intimidating India along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and promoting cooperation. According to General Hasnain, the Chinese are keener than ever for partnership and continued dialogue with India.
Zhao Gancheng, director of the South Asia Institute at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies expresses a similar view. He says, “Politically speaking, the major objective is to try and eliminate distrust and elevate mutual trust.”
However, India can’t lower its guard. It is rattled by China’s growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean area. China’s grand vision of establishing a “maritime silk route” through Asia can be disrupted if India smells a rat in it. Xi has already enlisted the support of Sri Lanka and the Maldives during his visits there. He has a lot of convincing to do, if he wants Modi on board for this grand idea. India’s location and naval clout could be a big hurdle if its apprehensions are not assuaged, and its cooperation ensured.
India is far more enthusiastic about the proposed Bangladesh-China-India-Burma trade corridor, also known as the BCIM. India is sure to bring it for discussion during the bilateral talks. The Chinese strategic thinkers are also positive about the BCIM idea.
Zhao Gancheng has pooh-poohed the suggestion that Xi’s warming up to India, and his decision to defer his proposed Pakistan visit, mean a dilution of Chinese interest in Pakistan, its traditional ally. He maintains that the fluid political situation in Pakistan is the cause of postponement of Xl’s visit there.
Lastly, for India, having China as an ally rather than a foe makes sound political and military sense. May be, with burgeoning trade and inflow of Chinese investment in sizeable amounts will remove the negative perception in India about its northern neighbor, and pave the way for a resolution of the vexed border issue.
[With inputs from TIME, BBC, and the Hindu]
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