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China in Modi Mode -1: Bonhomie, Business and Boundary on the Agenda, By Shastri Ramachandaran

C3S Paper No. 0090/ 2015

Courtesy: The Citizen

It may be hard for Beijing to win over the West-oriented, influential Indian elite, but that’s not stopping the Chinese leadership from going all out to win over Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is scheduled to visit China next month.

Well before President Barack Obama came up with his much-publicized pitch of Modi as “Reformer-in-Chief”, the Chinese have been emphatically reiterating in every conceivable forum – and in official briefings – that Modi is a “strong leader” who can take “strong” decisions.

Clearly the “strong” decisions the Chinese expect Modi to take when he travels to China relate to closer economic ties, better political relations and the long-standing boundary dispute. Foreign ministry officials, diplomats and experts who briefed Indian journalists were one in their view that progress on all three tracks – economic, political and the boundary – is achievable if two “strong” leaders, President Xi and Prime Minister Modi take “strong decisions”.

“A strongman can take strong decisions,” said Mr Yang Wenchang, a seasoned diplomat and President of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (CPIFA), which is a leading think-tank in Beijing. “I hope the two strongmen (Modi and Xi) can solve the boundary problem,” said Yang, who was optimistic that with “strong men” at the helm, this was the right time for India and China to strike a deal for solving the problem. Rare was the official spokesman who did not dwell on Modi as a “strong leader” — who could make his visit a historic one that would be remembered for its path-breaking decisions, particularly on the border issue.

It was not only Yang of CPIFA who stressed China’s readiness to come to terms with a “new border” as a result of an agreement between Modi and Xi. Mr Huang Xilian, Deputy Director-General of Asian Affairs in the foreign ministry, also was fulsome in his praise of Modi’s “strong leadership”. Huang, who has served as a political attaché in the Chinese Embassy in Delhi during the earlier NDA’s term, said that prospects for settling the border issue “are good so long as the two leaders showed strong political will”.

Mr Hu Shisheng, Director in the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, went so far as to express the hope that Modi would get another term as Prime Minister — so that the “two strong leaders” can find a way to put the border problem behind us and work together for five to 10 years. He said that the Chinese leadership should do whatever it takes to win wider acceptability in India and thereby create more political trust which could be a basis for a new partnership extending to new areas.

The conversations with leading officials and experts in Chinese think-tanks give some idea of the script China’s foreign ministry is working on for Modi’s visit. It would begin with bonhomie in Xi’an, the hometown of President Xi – a reciprocal gesture for Modi hosting him in Gujarat. The capital of Shaanxi Province, from where the ancient Silk Route started, is home to many industries. China now wants to develop a hi-tech industry zone here, and hopes that Modi’s visit would bring together India’s software power and China’s hardware power and open up new vistas of mutually profitable industrial collaboration and cooperation.

With new business boosting economic relations, Chinese officials and experts such as Yang, Huang and Hu expect that both sides could strive for a higher level of political trust founded on a mutual resolve to end the border dispute. In their view, the border dispute (and consequent incursions) vitiates trust, and in the absence of political trust the issue becomes more fraught. This is a vicious circle China wants to get out of as it prepares for a new economic cycle.


(Shastri Ramachandaran, an independent political and foreign affairs commentator, was invited to China by its Ministry of Foreign Affairs for briefings ahead of PM Modi’s visit next month.)

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