Even before the counting of votes for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls was over, the Chinese government issued a statement congratulating Narendra Modi on the NDA’s win. No other country was this quick. The Chinese were markedly effusive too. President Xi Jinping’s statement addressed to Modi struck an unusually warm note: “On the occasion of the National Democratic Alliance winning the 17th Lok Sabha election of India under your leadership, I would like to extend my heartfelt congratulations.
As important neighbours to each other, China and India are the two largest developing countries and emerging economies in the world. In recent years, China-India relations have shown strong momentum of development under the joint efforts of both sides. China and India maintain good coordination and cooperation on major issues such as promoting multi-polarisation and economic globalisation as well as upholding multilateralism.
I attach great importance to the development of China-India relations and would like to work with you to guide the development directions of the bilateral relations, enhance mutual political trust, expand pragmatic cooperation and promote the closer developmental partnership between the two countries to a new height. With my best wishes for your good health and every success.”
Xi, normally a stickler for protocol with a hubristic sense of self-importance, followed up the statement with a phone call to Modi to personally congratulate him and offer to set India-China relations on a new plane. China is not interested in half measures. All is well planned. Several weeks ago, the outgoing Chinese ambassador in New Delhi, Luo Zhaohui, wrote a strikingly candid article in a leading Indian daily. It called for a new start to an old relationship between “two ancient civilisations”.
Why the sudden charm offensive? The short answer: Washington’s trade war has made Beijing realise that an entente cordiale with India, however temporary, is a wise course to follow. As Sun Tzu, the legendary Chinese military strategist who lived in the sixth century BC, would have advised Xi: pick your battles wisely, one by one. China’s already slowing
economy has been hit by the US trade war. With Chinese exports to the US valued at $250 billion now attracting up to 25 per cent tariffs, China’s export-led GDP growth could fall further. Washington’s ban on Huawei, China’s telecom giant, came at a time when Beijing was readying itself for a high-profile 5G rollout ahead of Western rivals. For India, US-China friction over trade and technology presents an opportunity to reset its own geopolitical agenda.
Buoyed by his overwhelming electoral mandate, Modi will look forward to meeting President Xi Jinping twice in June, first at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Bishkek, the capital of the Kyrgyzstan, and again at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. Significantly, Kyrgyzstan’s president, Sooronbay Jeenbekov, was one of the few non- BIMSTEC leaders invited to Modi’s swearing-in. China’s attitude towards India has changed since the Doklam standoff. Used to bullying its neighbours in the South China Sea, China has been given a taste of its own medicine by US President Donald Trump’s trade and technology juggernautagainst Beijing.
China has sought help from the very countries it hectored a year ago. President Xi struck a note of rare humility last week. In a communication addressed to the recently held China International Big Data Industry Expo, Xi sought the cooperation of other countries in developing new technologies, especially artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT), big data and automation. He said China was willing to co-develop many of these technologies with other nations.
That represents a climbdown from China’s position where it made no secret of its desire to dominate technologies, especially in 5G and electric vehicles. China’s theft of US intellectual property over several years prompted Washington to crack down on Beijing. Diplomatically too, it was US pressure on China in the UNSC that forced Beijing to lift its veto over the designation of JeM chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. How should Modi approach his two back-to-back meetings with Xi? India boycotted the Belt and Road Forum summit in Beijing in April. It pointedly did not invite thePakistani PM Imran Khan to Modi’s swearing-in. Modi thus laid down two markers. First, there will be no compromise on the violation of Indian sovereignty.
The BRI passes through PoK, ruling out India’s participation in what Xi regards as his key legacy: a new Silk Route from east to west. Second, by inviting the leaders of BIMSTEC (Myanmar, Bangladesh, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan) as well as several other non-BIMSTEC leaders, but not the Pakistani PM, Modi has sent a clear message to Xi, the chief patron and protector of Pakistan. Unless China changes its policy on Islamabad’s sponsorship of terrorism, India will treat Beijing’s “Wuhan spirit” with scepticism.
Nonetheless, a confluence of geopolitical and economic circumstances have created an enabling environment for India to recalibrate its ties with both China and the US. Modi’s meeting with Trump in Osaka next month will be watched carefully. Trump likes winners. His barbs on India’s tariffs will likely soften as he too seeks a longterm ally in India in his battle with China.