By joining the microblogging site, Weibo, a week before he heads out to China, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is persisting with a bold effort to loosen up a relationship that has been in a straitjacket for too long. Last year, when President Xi Jinping came to India, Modi insisted on receiving him first in the capital of his home state, Ahmedabad, and serenaded him on the Sabarmati waterfront.
It is now Xi’s turn to reciprocate. He is hosting the PM in his hometown, Xian, before the formal talks begin in Beijing. Xian is also the ancient capital of China and the focal point of Xi’s signature “one belt, one road” initiative, which seeks to connect, over land, far corners of Eurasia to the Indo-Pacific littoral across the seas. The two leaders will also travel to the Wild Goose Pagoda, which honours Xuanzang, the 7th century Buddhist monk who travelled to India. The PM has often reminded his Chinese interlocutors that Xuanzang had visited Gujarat and spent time in his birthplace, Vadnagar.
Many in Delhi wonder why Modi is so obsessed with these “secondary” cultural issues and not focused on the boundary dispute that has loomed large on India’s relationship with China since the middle of the last century. The traditionalists are right in sensing that Modi is abandoning the old approaches to China. Three broad themes have emerged out of his effort to reframe India’s China relationship.
One is Modi’s determination to widen the basis of the engagement with Beijing. For far too long, small parts of the national security establishment have controlled the narrative, the vocabulary and the agenda of the bilateral relationship. The rest of the Central government, let alone the state governments, business and civil society, has not had any real voice in shaping the very important ties with China.
Having visited China a number of times as chief minister of Gujarat and done business with Chinese industry, Modi is eager to expand India’s commercial connection with that country. While economic engagement with China has steadily grown since the turn of the millennium, India has been a grudging partner.
Modi has recognised that India can’t construct a serious business relationship with China — the world’s second largest economy and a major exporter of capital — by giving the security establishment a veto over economic policy. Whether it is granting business visas or attracting Chinese investments, security fears in Delhi, borne out of the limited border war that the two sides fought in 1962, have often trumped economic common sense.
While security issues and geopolitical challenges from China must be addressed on their own merit, India would be unwise to deny itself the opportunities for more expansive economic cooperation. Compare this with China’s approach.
Despite fighting a bloody anti-colonial war against Japan and a costly war against America in the Korean peninsula, Beijing has had no hesitation in embracing investments from these countries to accelerate China’s economic modernisation. Modi might be emulating Beijing as he seeks Chinese investments to strengthen India’s manufacturing industry, reduce the trade deficit and address the massive shortfall in infrastructure.
Second, Modi is putting culture at the centre of the new engagement with China. In the past, India sought to bury serious bilateral differences on a range of issues, from the boundary dispute to regional competition, under the rhetoric of anti-colonial solidarity, Asian unity and the quest for a multipolar world. The seductive anti-imperialist construct, however, has never really helped India and China draw close.
In the Second World War, India and China were battling different imperial powers — Britain and Japan respectively — which were themselves at war with each other. In the post-colonial period, India and China had good relations with the United States, but not always at the same time. China today sees itself as America’s equal and, in the last few years, Beijing has sought to develop a “new kind of great power relationship” with Washington.
Instead of tilting at anti-imperialist windmills, Modi has turned to Buddhism to build stronger bonds with China. Although India and China are neighbouring civilisations with a long history of engagement, there is little awareness of each other or the shared culture that the two civilisations have inherited. Modi is trying to change that by seeking a liberalisation of visas to the Chinese, promoting tourism, developing cultural contact and cooperation between the peoples of the two countries.
Third, Modi is not defensive about India’s expanding relationship with America. Nor is he whining about China’s all-weather partnership with Pakistan. India is not going to define its ties with China on the basis of its relations with third parties. While those relations matter, Modi is conscious of the need to prevent them from coming in the way of finding common ground with China.
Modi’s sense of India as a “leading power” helps it break out of the non-alignment trap that it had long set for itself in dealing with China and America. Instead of viewing the two relationships as a zero-sum game, Modi is prepared to advance, wherever he can, with both China and America. Nor does he see the relationship with China and America as symmetric. India can cooperate more with the US, for example, in areas like security, while looking for strong Chinese support on infrastructure development.
Chinese leaders, ever so adept at power politics, do not find it difficult to understand where Modi is coming from. If Modi has surprised the world with his enthusiasm for China, Beijing is also pulling out all the stops to woo the Indian PM.
Modi’s real problem is in Delhi, where the resistance to new ways of engaging the Chinese is entrenched. Whether it is liberalising visas, attracting Chinese investments or jointly developing Silk Roads in Asia, Modi has his work cut out in getting the Indian establishment to think more creatively about China.