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Ahead of Modi’s visit to China

Two events in the recent past have come to dominate proceedings prior to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China. In his bid to reach out to the larger Chinese public, Modi had recently logged onto the popular social networking site ‘Sina Weibo’. However, as soon as the prime minister created a profile on the social networking site, he received a barrage of messages stating that Arunachal Pradesh should be a part of China. Meanwhile, a recent editorial in the Global Times, a widely-read tabloid brought out by the People’s Daily group, which is controlled by the Communist Party of China, accused Modi of “playing little tricks over border disputes and security issues, hoping to boost his domestic prestige while increasing his leverage in negotiations with China”. In its <g data-gr-id="67">editorial</g> the author clearly stated that Prime Minister Modi “should not” visit “disputed” border regions, namely Arunachal Pradesh. 

The editorial also stated that India must “completely stop” supporting the Dalai Lama and making the Tibetan issue a stumbling block to the Sino-Indian relationship. Modi’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in February, where he launched two development projects, had created a storm in the Chinese media. In fact a senior minister in the Chinese government had told the Indian Ambassador that Modi’s visit had undermined “China’s territorial sovereignty, rights and interests” and that it “violates the consensus to appropriately handle the border issue”.  It is well known that the Chinese have always considered Arunachal Pradesh to be a part of Tibet, despite India’s contention.

In recent times, certain foreign policy hawks have talked about the growing personal chemistry between Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. However, in an unprecedented show of force before the Chinese president’s last visit to India, the Peoples Liberation Army entered into what New Delhi considers India’s side of the Line of Actual Control. Unlike previous incursions in the past decade that were solved prior to key State visits, the PLA’s move coincided with Xi Jinping’s visit. The incursion, some observers would argue, was a clear assertion of China’s might in the border region. Although the Modi-led government did not respond these incursions with similar shows of strength, it has quietly gone about neutralising China’s influence in the larger Asia-Pacific region. Renewed ties with Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and Myanmar and proxy victories in Sri Lanka and Maldives, and its stated position on the South China Sea was New Delhi’s way of sending a message to Beijing. However, Modi is still going to Beijing because of India’s need for investment. China has a lot of spare cash and the kind of expertise particularly relevant to India.

For one the two countries are inextricably linked through trade and economics. The establishment in Beijing has indicated in the past few days that it is looking forward to stimulating its slowing economy. One of the ways in which it’s looking to do this is through trade intensification with neighboring countries, especially India. There is more than enough energy in the respective economies for <g data-gr-id="52">both  nations</g> to grow together faster and if possible together. Preliminary talks have indicated that China will discuss a mutual agenda of common development during Modi’s visit. 
A basic underpinning of China’s strategic doctrine has been to manage its borders, whether they are virtual, economic or geographical. In other words, China has for long viewed India as a potential nuisance and possible competitor. However, it must be stated that China’s hegemonic ambitions can’t be ruled out in this equation, especially on the economic front. Would trade intensification with Beijing mean that India would end up being a mere exporter of raw materials? India must focus on sorting out trade positions with its ambitious neighbour rather than inadvertently end up becoming a feeder economy. In news that would not please the Modi-led government, India’s trade deficit with China rose to a whopping USD 37.8 billion last year. Given that trade intensification is just one aspect of the wider jigsaw puzzle, the mandarins of South Block must burn the midnight oil to draft a clear agenda and talking point for Modi’s visit to China. 

In addition, the Indian prime minister will also have to keep an eye on massive Chinese investment in Pakistan. China’s decision to heavily invest in Pakistan’s infrastructure and industrial base need not be viewed by India as a zero sum game. If Beijing invests $46 million and uses the money in a way that is qualitatively different from Washington’s aid, China will gain positive influence over various stakeholders in Pakistan. Indian could, in turn, tap into this sphere of influence for achieving common goals like reducing terror threats. During the rule of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the Sino-Indian relationship was formulated as one of ‘cooperation and competition.’ America’s attempt to co-opt India onto its side, as opposed to China, was thus put on the backburner by New Delhi. Such a diplomatic strategy, one could argue, remains key for the Modi-led government.

However, rather than shying away from contentious points and focusing on public relation initiatives, Modi must try to confront the thorny issues head-on. He should try and have <g data-gr-id="50">a tough discussions</g> on Beijing’s assertions over Arunachal Pradesh. Understandably this is a risky proposition. Nevertheless, India must stop playing the deferential partner and arrive at the table as a rightful equal. India is a sovereign nation, and no Chinese government mouthpiece or member can tell New Delhi what it must bring to the table.
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