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Modi in China: Great Expectations Belied; By Shastri Ramachandaran

C3S Paper No. 0118/ 2015

Courtesy: Sakal (Marathi) Saptarang

The lack of progress on the Sino-Indian boundary dispute during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent three day visit to China, from May 14-16, underscores that strategic differences between the two countries remain much as they were.  And, that it would be a ‘Long March’ to resolve these differences for achieving greater political trust, which increased economic cooperation has failed to bring about.

However, Modi deserves credit for the plain speaking he did on the boundary dispute. As the Prime Minister said after his talks, “I stressed the need for China to reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realizing the full potential of our partnership. I suggested that China should take a strategic and long term view of our relations. I found the Chinese leadership responsive.”

Thus he has placed on record that China needs to make a greater effort to bridge the gap between New Delhi and Beijing and come closer – close enough to begin discussing the matter.  To attain such proximity, the prevalent distrust needs to be overcome.  This emerged clearly in the official communication to the media of the “overall sense that we needed to move on the outstanding issues…. develop a more positive narrative of our relationship and build higher levels of trust”.

In the weeks preceding the visit, there was an orchestrated move by the Chinese to make the boundary dispute the No.1 priority on the agenda for the meeting between President Xi Jinping and Modi. Chinese officials, strategic experts, diplomats and think tanks, who spoke to visiting Indian media, unfailingly emphasised the need to resolve the boundary problem. They kept harping on both Modi and Xi being “strong leaders” who could together take “strong decisions”. The Chinese were at pains to recall how Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister, during his visit to China, had missed the “historic opportunity” offered by the then leader Deng Xiaoping to settle the boundary problem.  The subtext here was that this is another “Nehruvian” legacy, which remains to be undone and which a “strong leader” like Modi is best placed to do it.

It may have come as a disappointment to the Chinese leadership that Modi appeared to have been rather well advised on the issue:  To give the problem a wide berth while pointing out that it remains an obstacle to building trust as a basis for realizing the full potential of the India-China partnership. Modi also did not fall for the “Nehruvian” bait. That just about sums up the central takeaway  of Modi’s China visit – which was not to have been snared into taking any public  position on the boundary dispute that would be construed as an advance over  the prevailing situation beyond maintaining peace and tranquility on the border.

Modi could not take any step forward on the boundary dispute. This shows that it is a policy problem, which the political establishment is unable to resolve.   Whether it is the Congress-led UPA or the BJP-led NDA with Modi at the helm now and Vajpayee earlier, neither the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) nor the Prime Minister’s Office has been able to get over the policy dilemma of how to go  about resolving the boundary dispute with China. The agreement to maintain  peace and tranquility on the border and continue the Special Representatives’  talks – which is moving at less than a snail’s pace – is an acknowledgement that  public opinion and political classes in India are yet unprepared for compromises to settle the dispute; and, any Prime Minister who attempts it would be risking  his own popularity.

Modi is more vulnerable than Manmohan Singh and Vajpayee were. Manmohan Singh, being in a different political league not comparable to that of Modi or Vajpayee, could have taken the risk during UPAC2 had the Congress party made the effort for a political consensus before its electoral rout appeared a certainty.   Vajpayee could have carried it off given his trans-party acceptability. But, he did not want to do it so close on the heels of the peace and tranquility agreement.  Moreover, after the RSS and powerful sections of the Sangh aborted his attempts at a pact with Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Vajpayee – whose government did the most to normalize India -Pakistan relations — did not want to test the limits of how far he could push the RSS.

Much as Modi may like to take India-China relations to a new level of trust based on attempts to resolve the boundary dispute — as his plain speaking seems to suggest — he has to reckon with the RSS and the hardline nationalists in the Sangh Parivar who may not countenance any concession to China. This may explain Modi not nudging the Chinese to show their earnestness of intent to grasp the nettle during the meeting of “strong leaders”. After all, it was not too long ago that Modi’s government pulled back from talks with Pakistan, which is perceived to have been under pressure from the RSS.

 Apart from Modi’s plain speaking on “some of the issues holding back India-China partnership” from reaching “their full potential”, there were symbolic positives:  such as, President Xi receiving Modi in his native Xi’an to reciprocate Modi hosting him in Gujarat during his visit in 2014.

Such symbolic signals indicate an optimism, which may be justified by the robust economic relationship. Today, India-China trade has crossed $ 70 billion.  Although economic relations and trade have been the strong points of bilateral relations, driven mainly by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s UPA government, the trade deficit is rising; and, in the last two years there has been a dip in the volume of trade.

For Modi to show any improvement in the economic relationship the deficit needs to be brought down; and, more Chinese investments brought in to India. The first steps towards these, taken when President Xi visited to India, went further during Modi’s recent visit with the signing of 26 agreements for commercial investments worth $ 22 billion.  Of course, Modi’s critics may well taunt him that this is less than half of the $ 46 billion China President Xi has committed to Pakistan.

Beyond economic and business ties, a beginning has been made to involve states in the partnership with the launching of the India-China Forum of State Provincial Leaders in Beijing on May 15. The Gujarat and Maharashtra chief ministers were present at the function where Modi said that state governments could take decisions more quickly. “These interactions also make the State governments more sensitive and aware of the international dynamics and requirements,” he added.

This means that like cities in sister-city pacts and business, state governments can directly develop lines of cooperation with China.  Yet this does not make the states stakeholders in foreign policy.  It only means that states, as enablers, have been roped in to hasten permissions and sanctions for projects. The fact of the two states being BJP-ruled gives it a party political colour as states have no say in policy or decision-making.

The inclusion of border states from among Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Bengal, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu in such a Forum would have been more indicative of intent to involve states as stake-holders in external affairs. It would also have been more meaningful because of the lived experience of these states with neighbouring countries.

(The author, an independent political foreign affairs commentator, was Senior Editor & Writer with the Global Times and China Daily in Beijing.)

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