Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tour of northeast Asia was a geopolitical mood setter. Neither Indian nor Chinese officials expected major breakthroughs. The problems between New Delhi and Beijing were too difficult to be solved in a few days of back and forth. The real goal was to set an environment for future resolutions.
Modi used the visit to communicate the diplomatic equivalent of body language.
One, India avoided whining, wagging fingers or hectoring. Modi has a reputation in China for “toughness” so he can afford to be affable and non-threatening in his interactions. Modi’s e-visa gesture , waving aside the concerns of India’s security agencies, underlined his authority to China’s leadership.
Two, India put every single outstanding issue in the bilateral relationship on the table, in the manner of great powers. New Delhi even took the initiative of adding nuclear non-proliferation and space cooperation to the agenda. How willing the Chinese are to work through each of these issues over the years will be a constant test of Beijing’s intentions.
This was captured in the joint statement: “This constructive model of relationship between the two largest developing countries…provides a new basis for pursuing state-to-state relations to strengthen the international system.”
No one expects this to be easy. India was surprised but has accepted that Beijing, by refusing to bypass the laborious special representatives process, will play hardball on the border — and that Xi Jinping may not be quite as all-powerful as is believed.
Third, by visiting South Korea and even Mongolia, Modi signalled an Indian ability to leave a footprint, however light, inside China’s backyard. New Delhi’s line of credit to Mongolia or business deals with South Korean business are small change for China. But they sent a signal to these countries that alternatives to the Middle Kingdom exist. Especially when these countries add Modi’s actions to similar visits by Japan’s Shinzo Abe and others.
While China does not see India as an equal, it has come to see India as too big to keep out of its policy calculus. Thus this was the first joint statement with China that had a Nuclear Suppliers Group reference. With a $ 2 trillion GDP, India’s market is too large for Beijing to ignore.
“Economics is the main driver, and adhesive if you like, binding both sides together,” says Hoo Tiang Boon of the S Rajaratnam School, Singapore.
Beijing has also come to see India as a source of regional stability, argues MIT professor M Taylor Fravel, as well as a neighbour with enough heft to matter in the US-China equation.
While these bits and pieces are each important, Modi and Xi Jinping ultimately struck it off because better bilateral ties fits in with both of their larger foreign policy goals.
“The Chinese, under Xi, do 'the vision thing' now in a way nobody else is doing,” reminds Australia National University’s Richard Rigby.
With this trip Modi has led China to agree that India, though a quarter of China’s economic size, is also a necessary part of what the two called the “realisation of the Asian Century.”