Narendra Modi’s three-day (May 14-16) visit to China, his first as prime minister, was successful in its attempt to suggest parameters for a reset in India-China relations. Pertinently, the three-nation tour included Mongolia and South Korea, both with dominant Buddhist populations and uneasy with China’s rise. South Korea is also a choice as an economic and trade partner as evidenced by the agreements valued at US$ 10 billion concluded during Modi’s visit to Seoul.
Modi travelled to China with a limited and focused agenda. He conveyed that India and China need not stay locked indefinitely in strategic rivalry and deny themselves benefits that could accrue from their untapped economic potential. To begin such a relationship, however, he conveyed—more firmly than when Xi Jinping came to Delhi last September—that China “reconsider its approach” and “take a strategic and long-term view”. Modi also said India would explore opportunities for trade and investment, but growth of this relationship would be dependent on steps taken by China to address the existing trade deficit and India’s other core concerns. India didn’t endorse Xi Jinping’s initiative of the “One Road, One Belt” and neither was there forward movement on the BCIM Corridor.
The visit was preceded by India’s decisions on purchase of military hardware, strengthening border defences and improving transport infrastructure in border areas. The initiatives to strengthen ties with the US, Germany, France and other nations each had strategic and economic interests at the core. Notable are the strategically significant projects for co-development and co-production of aircraft carrier and jet engine technologies with the US and decision to purchase the Rafale fighter aircraft. These steps and increased warmth in India’s relations with the US and other countries have not gone unnoticed in Beijing.
Beijing’s desire to ensure India does not get closer to the US and the West was reflected in its warm welcome to Modi. China’s official media said “Modi is considered as a state leader with strategic insights”; he might “become a Nixon-style statesman because of his pragmatism and capacity to resolve major contradictions between China and India”; and “India, under the Modi administration, has become a star on the world stage”.
Modi arrived to a colourful, festive welcome and, reciprocating his gesture of last September, Xi Jinping received Modi in Xian. Modi met two other important leaders of the Chinese Communist Party namely, Chinese premier Li Keqiang and Politburo Standing Committee member and chairman of the National People’s Congress Zhang Dejiang. Li Keqiang and Zhang Dejiang are also vice-chairmen of the recently constituted National Security Council chaired by Xi Jinping.
Substantive talks were held in Beijing where Modi had a 90-minute meeting with Xi Jinping and later had formal talks with Li Keqiang. Modi reiterated, more firmly than earlier, that China needs “to reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realising full potential of our partnership” and recommended that China “take a strategic and long-term view of our relations”. The issues include early settlement of the border dispute, stapled visas and China’s territorial claims, China’s involvement in PoK and diversion of river waters.
In an attempt to bring the issues to a wider audience, Modi repeated these concerns during a talk to students at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University. This was the first time that an Indian PM publicly stated these concerns on Chinese soil.
On May 4, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to open a Sina Weibo account and establish a “connect” with the nearly 355 million Chinese youth who use Sina Weibo. It attracted notice of the official news agency Xinhua and, though there were critical comments, this initiative paves the way for broadening the audience engaged in the relationship.
Prior to the visit China’s officials and official media published an unusual number of comments on India-China relations that reflected China’s intransigence on the border issue. This was punctuated by the map displayed by the state-controlled China Central Television where J&K and Arunachal Pradesh weren’t shown as part of India. Xinhua too displayed insensitivity to India’s concerns by publishing an article by Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif just before Modi arrived in China. India had erred by not swiftly protesting against increased Chinese involvement in PoK.
At least 15 articles were noticed in the mainstream Chinese official media between April 30 and May 15. Reflecting the official Chinese position, they listed the benefits to India of endorsing the “One Road, One Belt” and promoting trade with China. Some projected the investment of US$46 billion in the China-Pakistan economic corridor as a lure. A number of them discussed the border issue putting the onus for “innovative”, “out-of-the-box” thinking on India, but there was no hint of any rethink or concession by China. The focus was on the eastern sector, with the western sector kept out.
Global Times on May 11 published an article by Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, who reputedly articulates the views of the senior leadership. It asserted that Modi cease visiting Arunachal Pradesh, “not deliver any remarks that infringe on the consensus on bilateral ties” and demanded that India “completely stop supporting the Dalai Lama and stop making the Tibetan issue a stumbling block to Sino-Indian relations”. Separately, some Chinese officials in the embassy in Delhi privately said that China will not yield any concession on the border row. They added there had been an absence of progress in discussions between the special representatives.
The 41-paragraph joint statement contained no indication of progress on resolution of the border or regarding a “line of control” to prevent incursions, but mentioned that both are “determined to actively seek a political settlement of the boundary question”.
Pertinent, however, is the inclusion that “the process of the two countries pursuing their respective national developmental goals and security interests must unfold in a mutually supportive manner with both sides showing mutual respect and sensitivity to each other’s concerns, interests and aspirations”. This will be the benchmark against which progress by China in addressing issues of concern to India will be measured and certainly when the two leaders meet next. Thirty-two MoUs and agreements pegged at US$22 billion were signed during Modi’s visit. Of the 24 business agreements nine were for Chinese financing. Given China’s track record, however, little can realistically be expected to materialise.