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Modi In China: Looking Beyond Atmospherics; By Dr. Sridhar Krishnaswami

C3S  Fortnightly Column No. F009 /2015

There is no doubt in the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the People’s Republic of China is one of the major highlights and the fact that East Asia was chosen to cap his one year in office says many things in the realm of Indian foreign policy. And South Korea will be the 18th country the Prime Minister would have visited since assuming office. The three nation East Asian trip is not to be seen as a Prime Minister anxious to get away from the pressing duties in New Delhi but in a painstaking effort to set the parameters of Indian policy straight.

Officially speaking Mr. Modi will come away, in the words of the Chinese Ambassador to India, with a threefold “super visit”—the super high level reception starting with Xian, the hometown of Chinese President, Mr. Xi Jinping; a super fruitful result in terms of the broad canvas of discussions on issues of mutual interest and concerns; and the super friendly atmosphere of the visit. Writing in The Hindu of May 17, 2015 Ambassador Le Yucheng expressed confidence that the two countries will “jointly write a new chapter in the duet of the Chinese dragon and the Indian elephant”.

If the nature of the business and economic outcomes are anything to go by, Mr. Modi could not have done better—the various inter-governmental agreements ranging from outer space to earthquake preparedness  aside, as many as 21 business agreements worth US$ 22 billion were inked. Most importantly at a time when Official China was dabbling with “stapling visas”, the Indian Prime Minister brought something of a special gift to the people of China—over-riding objections and apprehensions of the Home Ministry, he announced “e-visas”. Further the fact that several top Chinese companies are going to be part of Mr. Modi’s “ Make in India” exercise shows the official nod from Beijing.

What transpired in closed meetings between Mr. Modi and the leaders of China will be known only to a handful but knowing the style of the new dispensation in New Delhi, the Indian delegation would have raised a host of issues from constant nibbling on the borders to irritants to India through the handiwork of Beijing in the neighbourhood. The frank discussion of these issues does not mean that they are going to be resolved overnight; rather hopefully there is a new political resolve to look at them in a pragmatic and practical fashion. In particular the boundary issue is something that requires patience and the resolute decision not to make matters worse by the temptation on the other side to grab a few kilometers every now and then.

It is natural that the strategic community in China is apprehensive of India’s reaching out to the United States as also to Japan and Australia in the Pacific. And with this the inference that the West will not want to see India and China forge a closer relationship. In fact the official mouthpiece of the Chinese government People’s Daily, has commented to this effect. “It is obvious that the Western elite don’t want to see India and China drawing closer to each other because it will confront their vision for Asia’s future. As rising powers in the region, China and India, as partners or rivals, will make a huge difference to the geopolitical interests of the West”. And then comes the wise counsel—that India should address concerns directly to China instead of involving a third party!

What the People’s Daily or any of its outlets forget is that unlike China’s client state in the immediate neighbourhood—read Pakistan—Indian foreign policy does not stem from insecurity as to run around looking for “third party” interlocutors. Right from the beginning New Delhi has refused to drawn in external parties to resolve disputes that are bilateral. And for China to have asked India to deal with it directly is something that would need greater clarity.

Perhaps Beijing would better understand where India is coming from strategically if it would look at its own posturing in the last few years that made everyone in the Asia Pacific nervous and apprehensive of a China that is seeking to advance its objectives rather aggressively. The menacing attitude toward nations involved in the Spratlys Dispute in the South China Seas is just one instance of an irritant to a country like India that has legitimate interests in that part of the world.

India does not need Washington or Tokyo to be prodded on something called freedom of navigation. For that matter the leadership in Beijing cannot be so naïve enough to believe that New Delhi will chart or change the directions of foreign policy just to humor United States, Japan or Australia. China and India know full well that economic and business relationships go a long way in fostering a better political and strategic environment; but a real change in bilateral relations would have to be seen in something other than atmospherics of a state visit.

(Sridhar Krishnaswami has been a senior journalist with The Hindu in Chennai, Singapore and Washington and currently Heads the Departments of Journalism and Mass Communications and International Relations at SRM University, Chennai and can be reached at Views expressed here are personal.)

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