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Modi’s visit to China : Is anything big brewing? by B.S.Raghavan

C3S Paper No. 0029/ 2015


All indications are that Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, will be visiting China some time in May. The maiden visit of India’s External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj to China in the last week of January was apparently by way of preparing the ground for Modi’s visit.  India’s National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, is also slated to visit China shortly to finalise the Prime Minister’s itinerary and consequent arrangements.

The run-up to Modi’s visit is marked by some unusual features. It is taking place within barely eight months of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India to a rousing reception followed by extensive exchange of views on a wide range of issues. One does not recall an occasion in recent years when a return visit by an Indian Head of State or Government took place within such a short time.

In fact, there is very little that has not already been discussed during Xi’s visit or in the past in respect of any of the issues referred to by Sushma Swaraj after her meetings in Beijing. Boundary dispute, trade, investment, market access, maritime silk route, Kailash-Manasarovar had all figured in the earlier visits also. The 28 paragraphs of the Joint Statement between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China on Building a Closer Developmental Partnership issued on September 19 at the conclusion of Xi’s trip had given exhaustive coverage to all matters of mutual interest.

Both Modi and Xi know that if all that there is to show for Modi’s return visit at such a short interval is a repeat of the same old declarations, there will be a terrible sense of letdown in the public mood resulting in future summits losing credibility. Only the possibility of new ground being broken can justify Modi’s trip at this time.

There are some signals from the Chinese side pointing to such a possibility. Notably, China has taken particular care to keep the border free of incidents in the last five months.  During Sushma Swaraj’s visit, both the Chinese President and Chinese Foreign Minister showed themselves to be manifestly keen to take India-China relations to a high trajectory. Not only were the talks between Swaraj and her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, characterized by extra-ordinary warmth and cordiality, Xi set aside long-standing protocol about formally receiving only Heads of States and Governments of other countries and granted an audience to Swaraj and engaged her in earnest conversations.  Knowing how inflexible the Chinese are about adhering to protocol, this gesture was unprecedented.

Obviously, the significance of the euphoric public impact of Barrack Obama’s visit to India, a rare second by the same President, meticulously masterminded by Modi himself,  the closeness and cordiality exhibited by Obama and Modi, and the comprehensive nature of the strategic partnership envisaged in their joint statement of January 25 has not been lost on China. Although there were no comments from spokespersons of Chinese Government, the Chinese media, which often reflected the official stand, pretended to take the development in their stride. However, from some of the expressions they used in their commentaries, one was able to glean their worry about India “sliding into Western influence”. The Global Times especially cautioned India and China not to “fall into the trap of rivalry set by the West” with the “ulterior motive” of driving a wedge between the two countries by playing up the China threat in geopolitical and economic terms.

Xinhua too while downplaying the Obama visit as unlikely to affect the “longstanding China-India relations”, was concerned that it “may succeed in propelling the US-India relationship forward”, though “it could hardly change the ground reality that India also needs China as a crucial cooperation partner”. It added: “Three days are surely not enough for Obama and Modi to become true friends, given their hard differences on issues like climate change, agricultural disputes and nuclear energy cooperation”.

It should not be surprising if, in this background, China were to conclude that India can no longer be taken for granted or that the entire power calculus it is seeking to establish in this part of the world will be upset if India were to throw in its lot with the US or, worse still, if the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quadrilateral Initiative”, under which India would join a formal defence compact with Japan, the United States and Australia were to take off resulting in the isolation of China. For, Quad’s avowed purpose itself is to establish an “Asian Arc of Democracy,” which would ultimately include countries in central Asia, Mongolia, the Korean peninsula, and other countries in Southeast Asia: “virtually all the countries on China’s periphery, except for China itself.”

These considerations impart an altogether new complexion to Modi’s forthcoming visit to China. It is, and has to be, a visit with a difference, if it were not to prove to be a damp squib. It has to live up to Sushma Swaraj’s  commitments, never before so emphatically expressed, of  being “outcome-driven”, with Modi and Xi being resolved, as per Swaraj’s assurance, with “out of the box” ideas to settle the border issue.

This is music to the ears of the friends of India and China. Border issue is the crux of India-China relations. There can be no definitive solution without give-and-take on either side, and that is only possible at the highest levels on both sides. Modi, with his acclaimed national stature as an effective leader, has high credentials to bring this about.

Once the recurrent tensions arising out of the border issue are out of the way, everything else will automatically fall into its place.  There will be unhindered flow of trade and investment.  Both countries will be able to exploit the full potential of their complementarities and competitive advantages. In short, nothing can stop them from achieving the synergistic partnership that can lead to a truly Asian Century.(Mr B.S.Raghavan, is a retired officer of the Indian Administrative Service, former Adviser to the UN and Chief Secretary to the Governments of West Bengal and Tripura. He is presently the Patron of the Chennai Centre for China studies.e- mail:bahukutumbi@gmail.com)

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