Prime Minister Narendra Modi, like no Indian leader before him, has an uncanny ability to do things which not only capture public attention globally, but also demonstrate his popularity with Indians across the world. While in Washington, he evidently left a deep impression on President Obama, as his host unprecedentedly took him on a personal guided tour to the Washington Monument. He then proceeded to address a public meeting with thousands wildly cheering in New York’s Madison Square garden, prompting the normally critical American media to take note of his ability to enthuse and “turn on” fellow Indians. This ability to make people “feel good” and demonstrate his political acumen was evident in Australia, Canada and France also.
This uncanny skill was for the first time demonstrated in China also, where Modi’s programme was crafted in a manner that the Chinese broke their usually rigid protocol and arranged for him to get together with President Xi
Jinping, even before arriving in the capital. Having arranged to receive Xi personally in his home state Gujarat, Modi chose to land in China in Xian, capital of President Xi’s home Province of Shaanxi. There was always a symbolism in commencing the visit in Xian, as it was the city where the famous Chinese Buddhist monk, traveller and scholar, Hiuen Tsang, spent his last years, after an incredible visit in the 7th Century AD across India, where he interacted with Indian monks and took back volumes of Buddhist scriptures. For ordinary Chinese, subject to Communist repression of religious beliefs, this was an allusion to their spiritual heritage, which millions cherish.
Indian leaders visiting China in the past have confined themselves to homilies about Panchsheel and peace and tranquility on the borders. Having established his personal equations with President Xi, Modi had no such inhibitions in touching on sensitive subjects and differences publicly. Alluding to outrageous Chinese policies of issuing stapled visas for residents of Arunachal Pradesh and their recognition of the legitimacy of Pakistan’s presence in PoK in mind, Modi remarked: “I stressed the need for China to reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realising the full potential of our partnership.” Alluding to the unrestrained, extensive and growing military, missile and nuclear weapons relationship that China has fostered with Pakistan, Modi noted: “We must ensure that our relationships with other countries do not become a source of concern with each of us.” Referring to the role of China’s “all-weather friend” Pakistan in promoting terrorism, Modi remarked: “India and China face terrorism for which the source is in the same region”.
While Modi stressed the need for early resolution of the border issue, it would be naive to believe that a solution is feasible anytime soon. China has, for over a decade, refused to even spell out its position on where the Line of Actual Control lies. In the absence of clarity on this, China uses the ambiguity to intrude into areas of its choice, at a time of its choosing. One hopes that as India enhances its military presence and upgrades infrastructure in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, China will show greater restraint. The two sides have agreed to improve contacts between their respective militaries both on the borders and in their respective capitals, time alone will tell whether China seriously intends to maintain peace and tranquility along the borders, or moderate its policies of strategic containment of India.
Economic ties are likely to blossom after the business meetings in Shanghai. India, however, needs to set its own house in order to benefit economically from developments in China. But caution will have to be exercised in sectors like communications and power, where concerns about cyber and energy security remain. We also need to push hard for removal of non-tariff barriers in sectors like information technology, pharmaceuticals and bio-tech.
The writer is a former diplomat