External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to China, immediately after United States President Barack Obama’s India sojourn, is symbolic of the importance that New Delhi continues to accord to ties with Beijing — even if the Narendra Modi government has just signed off on a joint strategic vision with Washington on the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region. The challenge for New Delhi is to allay Beijing’s strategic anxieties while pushing for closer economic ties since India seeks access to Chinese markets and needs its investment.
There seems to be some intent from both sides to move bilateral ties along constructive, unsuspicious lines. Chinese President Xi Jinping broke with protocol and met Ms Swaraj and reportedly conveyed that he would like Mr Modi to visit his home province of Shaanxi during the PM’s visit later this year. Ms Swaraj spoke of consolidating economic ties and strengthening connectivity between the two countries and said India would aim for an “outcome-driven” summit that would grapple with the boundary dispute. Ms Swaraj’s visit is another pointer to Asia’s fluid geopolitics as nation-states seek to forge alignments that balance economic aspirations with strategic preferences even as the US, China and Russia seek to recruit partners in the region. India has aligned itself with the US to manage the rise of China but New Delhi does not see this in zero-sum terms. Ms Swaraj reiterated that Mr Obama in India “was a different visit” which did not cast a shadow on talks with China. India engages Russia and China through a trilateral forum — with Ms Swaraj meeting her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Beijing. India wants to be adept at exploring economic and strategic convergences like all great and aspiring powers do. For instance, US-China bilateral trade is worth $570 billion despite their strategic polarities and China calls Pakistan its “irreplaceable all-weather friend” alongside having $66 billion trade with India. And New Delhi has its ‘Act East’ policy entailing partnerships with Japan, the Asean nations and Australia.
The challenge for the Modi government is to blunt the adversarial edge of the China relationship even as it looks to consolidate ties with the US. Progress on the boundary question, addressing misperceptions on Pakistan and Tibet, tackling bureaucratic suspicions of Chinese technology will develop trust and realise economic potential. Reassuring the US and China at the same time promises to be very demanding. Appointing S Jaishankar, former envoy to Washington and Beijing, as foreign secretary makes sense in this light.