Once More, With Feeling

Modi’s visit to China has held no surprises but this in itself need not disappoint. A mature relationship is in no need of them.

Summit meetings between global players like India and China are closely watched for new strategic directions or policy guidance. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China has been no exception. Was it the same tea poured into new cups, tales of Buddhist pilgrims along the Silk Route, doctors without borders like Dwarkanath Kotnis, stiffly posing Chinese leaders at ceremonial welcomes, against vast, painted backdrops in the Great Hall of the People, and the usual plethora of agreements and memoranda, with capstone Joint Statements? There is a sense of déjà vu in all this for such visits have been happening at varying intervals, in recent memory, since Rajiv Gandhi’s journey to Beijing, Xian and Shanghai in December 1988.

But 2015 is not 1988. India and China are in a different place. Their re-emergence is a favorite subject for analysis in global corridors. President Xi Jinping, born Red (as an excellent analysis by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker recently put it) and increasingly strong-armed, seems to have found an equal match in Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a proudly nationalist scion of the soil who is driven by his mission to make India strong and developed. Both rose from provincial backgrounds to become the undisputed leaders of their countries, both are the first men born after liberation and independence respectively, to lead their nations. These two leaders have had ample opportunity to size each other up given the number of meetings they had had over the last year, including Xi’s visit to India in September 2014 and Modi’s latest visit to China, his first as Prime Minister.

Pot over a small fire

The overarching compass of India-China relations is not one marked by sweet harmony or cordiality, but more by caution and wariness, although images of the dark and deeply adversarial past of the ‘60s and ‘70s of the last century have receded.

Dancing lions and terracotta warriors up for inspection notwithstanding, this is a relationship marked at the popular level by inherent skepticism and questioning rather than comfortable co-existence. The current visit of our Prime Minister was bold in its imagining, but in its execution, it was inevitable that the complexities in our China relationship should have refused to go away. The relationship is like a pot over a small, continuous fire, and to use an analogy attributed to Xi in Osnos’s New Yorker article, you have to pour in “cold water to keep it from boiling over”. So this visit is part of a continuum – a process in which any initiative that brings the leaders of the two countries together is a step for a better equilibrium for Asia and the world.

But Modi’s pitch was perfect. He seems to have approached his Chinese hosts with cheerful enthusiasm, absorbing all he obviously saw and learnt during this visit, as one committed to building a better relationship, notwithstanding the difficulties strewn along his path. He has understood the importance of “enhancing communication through frequent exchanges” including regular visits at the level of Heads of State and Government, as the Joint Statement issued in Beijing on May 15, said. This is “smart” diplomacy and India is practicing it well. Additionally, Modi has made the unexceptionable point that both countries should take a strategic, long-term view of their relationship.

Border settlement can’t wait

The Chinese of course, can be expected to repeat themselves. The map of India displayed by China Central Television in a broadcast during the PM’s visit, was provocatively aimed at our audiences as a reminder of the problems that persist. But what must be recognized is that these problems will not go away until we have worked out a lasting boundary settlement – till then, this kind of needling of India, particularly since our media breast beats about it, is a reality that will come back to haunt us with troublesome regularity. We must steel ourselves. In any case, a Chinese thrust to “regain” territory from which they withdrew south of the McMahon Line in Arunachal Pradesh in 1962 would be foolish in extreme and they are cognizant of this. “South Tibet” is a case of ‘bad fiction masquerading as fact’ as Salman Rushdie once said in another context. It is a lost horizon. The territory is ours, to keep. Essentially.

The Prime Minister aimed well in saying that a peaceful solution to the boundary question should be approached proactively and is a strategic objective. We have tarried too long in seeking a solution. Redoubling efforts to reach a mutually agreed definition of the Line of Actual Control in the India-China border areas is only a prophylactic pending a final settlement. While useful in itself, it must not postpone such a settlement. The Special Representatives appointed by the two Prime Ministers must have a clearly specified mandate in this regard, spelling out the territorial contours of a solution to the boundary question that is ‘saleable’ in both countries. We cannot wait another 60 years for it.

Modi referred in his media statement after talks in Beijing with Premier Li Keqiang that President Xi had proposed that the two countries hold regular summits, an idea whose time has definitely come. In fact, annual summits between India and China will serve the important purpose of imparting useful momentum and acceleration towards the resolution of outstanding issues, whether political, strategic or economic.

An architecture for Asia

In referring to the decision to enhance “strategic communication and coordination regarding our region”, and the references to “shared neighbourhood” in the public statements emanating from the visit, the Prime Minister was suggesting the legitimate need for both countries to be regarded less as rivals and competitors and more as responsible Asian powers committed to regional peace and stability.

The challenge here is to establish levels of compatibility and coordination that provide a clearer definition of mutual interests, and codes of conduct and a mature dialogue on management of tensions and threats to regional security. If the shared neighbourhood is taken to include not only countries in our vicinity but also the Indo-Pacific world, then forums like the bilateral maritime security dialogue, the counterterrorism dialogue and the discussions on the situation in Afghanistan will need more focus and closer attention. India-China cooperation in Southeast Asia (still a chimera) and a coherent dialogue on the One Belt, One Road initiative is another area to be accessed. India’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, still to be realized, must become a reality.

The interstices in the network of various relationships between the United States, India, China, Japan and Australia together with ASEAN, especially countries like Indonesia and Singapore, will need to become junctions for a flow of ideas and confidence-building so as create that regional architecture of peace and security that has been until now a bridge too far.

Getting China to ‘Make in India’

Reflecting the high level of ambition, in Modi’s words, in the economic partnership, 19 mainland mega Chinese companies, and three Hong-Kong based ones, attended the interaction between CEOs and the Prime Minister in Shanghai on May 16. The mood was positive, with the Chinese CEOs saying they were upbeat about the Make in India and the Digital India campaign. Lin Bin, head of Xiaomi, told the Prime Minister that he had “some big plans for India”; others like the Chairman of SANY said they were “full of hope” about India, pointing to the dynamic work force and the huge market. The setting of a high-level task force to develop a strategic road map to expand economic relations in infrastructure, IT, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and manufacturing should provide more traction in realizing a sustainable economic partnership. In all this, the devil is in the detail and in ensuring efficient monitoring and implementation. Reviews are necessary at regular intervals at a senior leadership level by both countries so as to remove systemic bottlenecks (including on visa issues) and bureaucratic inertia.

In both the economic partnership as also in people-to-people contacts (where the information gap is wide), the resolve to move outside the narrow confines of national capitals, and promoting linkages and connectivity between states and provinces, so as to enable a more broad-based relationship, is welcome. The announcement of a new Consulate General for India in Chengdu in China’s southwest, and one for China in Chennai, will also help foster sub-regional contacts and business cooperation in both countries. The innovative India-China Provincial Leaders Forum that held its first meeting during the Prime Minister’s visit, should be a catalyst for more synergy between the regions in India and China.

As anticipated, there has not been much to report on the issue of trans-border rivers. The Chinese appear reluctant to go beyond the template of provision of flood season hydrological data and emergency management. This is an area that will bear continuous monitoring. In other trans-border matters, the decision to hold negotiations to augment the list of commodities in border trade and to expand this trade at Nathu La, Lipu Lekh and Shipki La is a good people-centred move for areas along the high India-China frontier.

No new is good news

Modi’s visit to China — embedded in the continuum of bilateral relations as structured over the last two decades and with its emphasis on economic partnership and opportunities for Chinese industry in India — has held no surprises but this in itself need not disappoint. A mature relationship is in no need of them. Predictability, sustainability and coherence outweigh vaulting ambition, and both countries have shown that they can set a model for big country relationships that has global relevance and can strengthen the international system. This is constructive and should provide encouragement to dream bigger for the future.

(The writer was Foreign Secretary of India from 2009-2011 and a former Ambassador to China and to the United States)