When China’s President Xi Jinping visited India last September, New Delhi and Beijing had decided to ‘strengthen political communication, deepen strategic trust as well as intensify political dialogue and consultations at all levels’.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in China this week in line with that commitment. The media is likely to focus inordinately on personal aspects of the visit; to see how Mr Xi will reciprocate the attention Mr Modi lavished during the former’s visit to Ahmedabad; but there is plenty of serious business at stake.
Both leaders meet just as huge changes are imminent in Asia, concerning modes of economic interactions in the continent as well as its overall security environment. China’s military footprint is expanding and it is embarking on the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, two projects designed to strengthen its connections to Central Asia, Europe and Africa through ports, roads and railway links, which will transform the Asian landscape.
India and China are attempting to negotiate their terms of engagement while such changes are afoot; they are clearly alert to the benefits of cooperation but are aware that elements of the establishment on both sides still approach the future through the lens of a troubled past and the suspicion it produces for the present.
Conservatives on both sides have differing positions on the boundary dispute and Tibet, and they frown over recent developments such as the signing of the India-US ‘joint strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region’ — and China’s sizeable investments in Pakistan.
Both leaders will aim to candidly share perceptions and manage the dissonance that emerges from crosscutting policies that all nation-states end up pursuing while at the same time maximising the potential of linking up nations.
Both sides already transact $70 billion worth of trade, China has committed to building two industrial parks in Gujarat and Maharashtra and wants to ‘realise’ an investment of $20 billion in India over the next five years. Economic linkages will continue to improve but the real challenge, as several analysts point out, is to convince sceptics about the durability of India-China cooperation.
Mr Modi, like his predecessor Manmohan Singh, is hoping that interdependence and intensive contact will blunt persisting differences. Realists may want something more tangible as reassurance of China’s intent — such as a breakthrough on the border issue.