Modi 2.0 on Xi's tapestry
Change in the leadership temperament is central to any advancement between India and China
A little before the 2019 general elections in India, I visited China for a week at the invitation of Beijing's Tsinghua University and China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. Apart from the discussions on formal topics in Seminars and Round Tables, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's political fate was the obvious subject of inquisitiveness for scholars during informal interactions. Chinese analysts saw Modi's re-election as a foregone conclusion. They, without any exception, told me that they see no chances for an opposition coalition to form the next government in India.
After the elections, the same analysts were shocked. What came as a big surprise to them was the scale of Modi's victory. Like many in India, they also felt that Modi would return with a reduced margin, will not get a clear majority and be forced into a coalition government. Chinese prepared a foreign policy plan with India on the basis that Modi would not have as free a hand in governance as he did in his last term and the Opposition will have a greater say than before.
Second Modi administration has compelled the Chinese to redraft their whole strategy towards India. In the first Modi term, India-China relations were a mixed bag. The Chinese felt that 'businessman' Modi will increase economic activities with them. When Modi made a special gesture of hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping in his home state Gujarat, immediately after taking over as Prime Minister in 2014, Chinese analysts were full of hope for a big leap in Indo-China trade. During my previous visits to renowned Think Tanks in Shanghai and Beijing, I sensed that despite apprehensions, China's ruling dispensation somewhere had expectations that Modi will walk a few extra steps to improve economic engagement between the two countries. Instead, Modi sought a closer relationship with the US.
Modi's special attention to Tibetan Sikyong and Taiwan's top diplomatic representatives in India, double-downing the opposition to Belt and Road Initiative, stand on the issue of India's membership to Nuclear Suppliers Group, sanctioning of Pakistan based terrorists and Doklam episode kept the relationship off-balance between India and China. The informal summit at Wuhan between Xi and Modi managed to restore some normalcy. But Wuhan was more of an outcome of instantaneous requirements for both leaders than their 'holy desire'. To Xi, it was the beginning of China's trade war with America and Modi needed to focus on the coming general elections in India.
Xi returned for his second term in power in 2017 and can remain on his seat for a lifetime now. Modi has also worn a feather of his 'ThreeNotThree' election victory and will remain at the helm of India's affairs at least till 2024. Both of them now have greater clout. Modi has invited Xi for the Wuhan-2 in Varanasi later this year, but I do not see that the rhetoric of 'Wuhan spirit' is going to contribute much in ameliorating affinity between India and China as much as Chinese expect from the second Modi regime. Old problems in the relationship will go on.
New issues such as China's broadened economic and political influence in South Asia and India's pro-American careen are bound to impact the bilateral relationship. The only way to walk together in a positive direction is by not posing a threat to each other and having more and more consensus on global issues by putting the harder problems aside. The understanding shown by India and China during recently held Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Bishkek on the issue of trade protectionism was a welcome sign but the fact remains that China itself lacks in following most of SCO declarations.
China expects India to open up to larger Chinese investments but is not ready to crack open its own high walls of non-tariff barriers against Indian goods and services. India's huge trade deficit with China is a major aching point in the relationship. Xi had promised on the banks of Sabarmati during his 2014 visit for a direct investment of $30 billion in five years. India could not get even a fraction of this. It is a false conception that the manufacturing units set up by Chinese mobile phone companies are providing local employment as their arrival is at the cost of throwing Indian manufacturers out of the market en masse. It is highly counterproductive and will ultimately demolish India's sustainable growth.
India has tried to ease its resistance on China-led connectivity initiatives and sent Indian representatives to the 13th Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Regional Cooperation Forum meeting held in Yunnan. But suspicions about Chinese intentions are still alive in Indian minds. China's relationship with Pakistan will always remain a matter of concern for India till China decides to dilute its strong political and economic patronage to the 'home of terrorists'. How can China pressurise India for a bargain on Dalai Lama and Taiwan and at the same time go ahead with its deep closeness with Pakistan?
Unlike his first swearing-in ceremony, Modi did not invite Tibetans or Taiwanese to his second-one. But Chinese analysts seem disappointed on the appointment of S Jaishankar as India's foreign minister. Jaishankar was India's ambassador to China for an enduring tenure but the Chinese see him as pro-US and supporting Japan. I am unable to find any instance when the Chinese are not watching how India interacts with the US. Therefore, Jaishankar's diplomatic flow matters. China would typically hope that India does not get too close to the US and Japan.
India's position on future Dalai Lama will also be closely watched in China and Modi will have to tackle it with the required wisdom. China has made its intentions clear to appoint the next Dalai Lama, which has been strongly denied by the current Dalai Lama, who reserves his right to nominate. This issue, sooner or later, is going to infuse a substantial intensity of uncertainty to Indo-China affiliation.
Global weather is not very conducive at the time of Modi's entry into his second term. The bilateral competition that exists between the US and China will escalate in years to come. In his first term, Modi recognised that India's strategic interests in Asia would be best served by venturing with the US. In his second term, Modi has to carry forward a complex bilateral agenda with China. Change in the leadership temperament is central to any bilateral advancement between India and China.
India's neighbourhood will remain the topmost priority in the second Modi term. Sri Lanka and the Maldives have reshaped their relationship with China. Nepal has moved towards a new normal and no longer wants to intensely rely on India. New Delhi's approach will entirely depend on Beijing's policy activism in nearby residents of India. Modi has very rightly shown his strong willingness to assert India's interests in the neighbourhood. Therefore, if China miscalculates the equilibrium point in the competition-cooperation dynamics with India, Modi 2.0 will prove more challenging for Xi.
(The author is Editor & CEO of News Views India and a national office bearer of the Congress party. The views expressed are strictly personal)
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