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Why Narendra Modi should visit China First?

Indian Prime minister, Narendra Modi a pariah in the Western world for being complicit in the 2002 Gujarat riots, ‘a Hindi bigot’ and even ‘fascist’ by various national parties in India who according to them would break the country into shreds, and was pronounced a ‘threat to the existence’ of Muslims in India and elsewhere, belied all these claims and steered the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) headed by Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) to a landslide victory with BJP single handedly securing absolute majority by winning 282 seats in the Lower House of the Indian Parliament, first time since 1984 any party has won a majority. The Indian National Congress (INC) that headed the government for two consecutive terms performed disastrously by bagging only 44 seats primarily for its ‘policy paralysis’ and corruption scandals running into billions of dollars in a country as poor as India. Therefore, Modi’s resurgence on the Indian political horizon demonstrates yearning of the billion strong people, especially the middle class and young population for a strong and decisive leader; the INC drubbing represents this section of population’s frustration with the party infested by corruption, nepotism and perpetual dynastic rule since the days of Nehru. This also represents a desire to emulate China’s economic success story, and an Indian dream of seeing the country become rich and powerful thus seeking its rightful place in the comity of nations.

Seeing the mood of the Indian electorate, Nancy Powel, the then US ambassador to India, travelled all the way to Gujarat; praised Modi’s model of ‘good governance’ and ‘excellent investment climate’ in Gujarat and said that he was welcome in the United States. On being elected to power, the designate Prime Minister, received a telephone call from the US President Barack Obama who congratulated and invited him to visit Washington at a mutually agreeable time. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was the first head of a state to call Modi, the call lasted for less than half an hour and Modi reportedly told his Chinese counterpart about Xuanzang having visited his hometown in Gujarat. Modi also officially invited Xi JInping, the President of China to visit India. Now what about Modi himself? What should be Modi’s approach towards China? Should he Chose China the first destination as the Chinese Premier chose India in 2013? Being aware of the Chinese economic success story, and the contribution of China to Gujarat’s success, he cannot ignore China for the following reasons:

At the outset India needs a new and realistic farsighted foreign policy strategy that transcends conventional approaches such as non-alignment. Modi inviting SAARC leaders to his swearing in ceremony on May 25, a regional foreign policy master stroke is the testimony to what Modi’s foreign policy is likely to be. It was indeed a strong message to the national and international audience that he would speak clearly about the issues of bilateral and multilateral concerns. India, meanwhile, need to strive for strategic partnerships with major powers including China so that strategic autonomy is achieved. In this context US, China and Russia remains India’s top foreign policy priorities.

If Modi’s top 10 priorities for India, pronounced soon after taking the charge is any pointer, then definitely China is the country we need to focus on. India could universalize mobile phone connectivity in India with such an affordable rates is not because of Nokia and Ericson, but because of the tough competition these companies received from Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE. Similarly, if India would like to build state of the art high speed railways and expressways, it could be built in tandem with China with latter’s expertise, capital and competitive prices not with the exorbitantly high western technology. Prime Minister Modi perhaps understands it better than any other political leaders in India, for he has been to China and Taiwan many times. In 2011 while addressing a crowd of 200 Chinese investors at a Beijing five-star hotel, he told them that Gujarat offered them ‘governance, transparency and stability. Can he repeat these three words to them for India as well? I think he will. He is aware of China’s 3.9 trillion US dollars foreign exchange reserves, if Gujarat has attracted much of the 900 million dollars of Chinese investment in India, India could attract billions from China in infrastructural development and manufacturing sector.

China has been cautious in investing in India owing to an unpredictable and stagnant investment climate, these concerns would definitely be addressed by Modi. He has been saying throughout his election campaign that stagnancy is the biggest problem facing India, and that strong economy is the driver of an effective foreign policy. China suffered from these during Mao era, however, once out of these, within a short span of three decades it catapulted itself to the rank of second largest economy of the world with a GDP of 5.9 trillion US dollar, capable of surpassing US in coming years thus further enhancing its political and economic clout globally. Modi is aware of China’s new global reach, that’s is why he told Li Keqiang that India has to learn from China’s experience.

Secondly, greater economic and political engagement between India and China demands that constructive and cooperative partnership transcends bilateral and regional configurations and has global implications. As the 21st century is tipped to be an Asian Century, and India and China twin engines of Asian and world economic growth, it is imperative for both to realize the dream of a resurgent Asia together. China has been vigorously following this dream for the last 30 years, it is time for India to set its house in order as Modi rightly says and be a strong and equal partner in the realization of this dream. Initiatives such as BCIM, Silk Route, Sea Silk Route that link the countries and regions by a network of roads, railways and markets are welcome steps. Active participation from India will render the ‘string of pearls’ and ‘China’s containment of India’ etc theories meaningless, and prepare India for a bigger role not only in the regional economic development, but also in the security architecture of the region.

It is given that with the rise of both India and China there would be overlapping interests whether in the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean that includes the South China Sea or any other continent, therefore, inclusive or common security needs to be actively explored. This is significant as India and China has found convergence of interests in many spheres, be it the climate change, democratization of international financial institutions through multilateral forums such as Russia-China-India Strategic Triangle, Brazil; Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS); Brazil-South Africa-India-China (BASIC); the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF); East Asian Summits (EAS); G 20 and other multilateral forums such as both the countries being observers in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Modi is aware of the realities of the globalised world, ‘we are living in the 21st century’ said Modi in an interview; therefore, one needs not to apprise the new prime minister about the notion of an Asian Century.

Thirdly, India has many outstanding issues with China, the unresolved boundary issue; the biggest of all has been the root cause of much of the trust deficit. Not necessary everyone in India is aware of the fact that we lost a couple of opportunities to resolve the issue, as we did not see logic in the Chinese proposals of a package deal in the late 1950s and 1970s. 38 rounds of talks with China since 1981 have yielded not much; the more we talk the more complexity the issue has gathered. The issue that needed a political solution, we contrarily adopted a piecemeal approach by devising various mechanisms such as JWG in 1988, the Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control in 1993, the Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field Along the Line of Actual Control in 1996, the Special Representative in 2003, the Protocol on the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the India-China Boundary Question in 2005, Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs in 2012, and the Border Defense Cooperation Agreement in 2013.

The mechanism of Special Representatives created during Vajpayee’s China visit in 2003, has also lost the steam. In order to find better ways out for the resolution of the border issue India will need to have an extremely well calibrated foreign policy with regional as well as major powers. As China get increasingly embroiled in East China Sea with Japan and Vietnam and Philippines in South China Sea, India need not necessarily to take the sides but should not shy away from attracting Japanese investment in a big way that has declining rapidly in China, this year alone registering almost 39% fall.

China’s ‘all weather friendship’ with Pakistan and supplying the latter with sophisticated military weaponry including the missiles and nuclear technology, has posed a threat to India’s national security. India needs to impress upon China that the monster of cross-border terrorism is neither good for India nor for China. Therefore, it is time to de-hyphenate India from Pakistan and stop looking terrorism in the region from Pakistani prism. India hopes that ever increasing incidents of terror and violence in China’s restive region of Xinjiang and elsewhere will change this perception of China, for many of the terror outfits are reportedly to be in hand and glove with the Al Qaida, and trained in northwest region of Pakistan. Therefore, a genuine dialogue between India and China on counter terrorism in near future cannot be ruled out.

Finally, there has been an uninterrupted civilizational dialogue between India and China since time immemorial. Xuan Zang, who Modi told the Chinese Premier had visited his native place, was part of this dialogue along with many other scholar monks from China and India including Kumārajīva, Paramārtha, Amoghavajra Faxian and Yi Jing. In a span of 734 years starting from 10th year of the Yongping Era in Han Dynasty (67 A.D.) to the 16th year of Zhenyuan Era in Tang Dynasty (800 A.D.), 185 prominent translators translated 2412 sutras that ran into 7352 fascicles. Dharmaraksa, Kumarajiva and Xuan Zang separately translated 175, 74 and 76 scriptures running into over 2000 fascicles, mostly from Sanskrit. It was through the efforts of these scholar monks that the repository of East Asian Buddhist literature could be created. There was a very close proximity between the Indian nationalist leaders with the Chinese nationalists namely Sun Yatsen and Zhang Taiyan; the Ghadr Party that had basis in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Hankou, Beijing etc. places and had participated in Chinese revolution in 1920s was supported both by the Communists and the Nationalists.

Prior to the industrial revolution, India and China jointly accounted for 50% of the world’s GDP up to the early 19th century. As the economic and political balance shifts to Asia, Asia is poised to restore that position within the next few decades, and India and China accounting for most of the GDP. It is in this context that the relationship is going to be that of a global significance, as it would heavily impinge on the global political and economic architecture. Needless to say, it becomes extremely important for both the countries to nurture this relationship well, and continue the civilizational dialogue that once strengthened cultural as well as economic ties between both the countries.

(The writter Prof. B.R. Deepak, is professor of China Stuides at the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. E-Mail:

Disclaimer – The views expressed are of the author.

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