Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s belief in the power of personal diplomacy was on full display during his just-concluded visit to China (May 14-16). The handshakes with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang were warm and friendly, the body language relaxed and the overall atmosphere one of comfort.
The ‘selfie’ moment of the two prime ministers at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing is a first in the annals of Indian and Chinese histories. Whether at the historical city of Xian or in public venues at Beijing, the affable curiosity among ordinary Chinese was palpable.
The speech at Tsinghua University was, I believe, one of the most successful exercises in public diplomacy. Modi’s first few words in Mandarin were a disarming stage-setting prelude to a serious and unusually frank acknowledgement of the sharp edges in the relations even while articulating a vision of Asia.
The measure of what Modi was able to achieve is evident in the change in tone both in the Chinese official and semi-official media and in social media before, during and after the visit. On the eve of the visit, positive coverage was interspersed with negative and sometimes even abusive comment. The level of enthusiasm increased with each day of the visit. One Chinese analyst even compared this to United States President Richard Nixon’s path-breaking visit to China in 1972.
In a different age, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had also been accorded an unprecedented welcome in 1954 by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. In the latter case, the promise of a defining relationship was soon shattered on the rocks of competing nationalisms and territorial claims.
The Tibet issue, which first erupted in 1959 with the Dalai Lama seeking shelter in India, generated strategic distrust, which led to the war in 1962 and the China-Pakistan alliance. Does the Modi visit carry the potential of reversing this negative dynamic? Will style and symbolism lead towards substance?
In addition to his belief in personal diplomacy and the importance of establishing a close rapport with fellow-leaders, Modi also believes in the efficacy of strong economic and trade relations as an instrument of reducing, if not eliminating, strategic distrust. This, too, has been on full display during the visit, with the prominence given to the India-China Economic Forum of top-level CEOs and message of welcome to Chinese investors delivered eloquently by the prime minister himself.
There were 24 agreements and 21 business-related MoUs concluded during the visit, with a combined value of $30 billion. The inclusion of some chief ministers in the Indian delegation and promoting provincial-level engagement and cooperation are innovative. Setting up consulates in Chengdu in China and Chennai in India will be helpful in promoting ties with China’s important southwest region.
However, it would be better if economic and trade relations are pursued on their own merit. We have witnessed how close economic relations between China and Japan have not prevented acute political tensions from erupting from time to time.
China has much to offer in terms of capital and technology. But we must leverage China’s desire to benefit from India’s large and expanding market and investment opportunities to obtain reciprocal access for India goods and services such as pharmaceuticals, automotive parts and IT services, which have a competitive advantage. The foreign secretary announced a joint working group to look into ways of addressing the persistent trade deficit.
The ground realities that hold the relations back remain, with the danger that as in the past, in a moment of unexpected crisis or unintended confrontation, relations can once again plunge into hostility.
What the visit has achieved is a very frank articulation of these sources of tension, i.e. the border issue, China’s activities in Pakistan and in our sub-continental neighbourhood, the issue of stapled visas, the ballooning trade deficit and market barriers in China, and the continuing overhang of the Tibet issue. Modi has unambiguously, though in a positive frame, publicly called on China to adopt a different, more accommodating approach on some of these issues. That’s a plus, but must be persevered with.
The visit was also notable for what was missing. There was no reference in the joint statement to China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) initiative, though pre-visit Chinese commentary had expressed the hope that India would be ready to join as partner.
There was no reference to the two sides engaging in a maritime security dialogue, which has been agreed in principle but not yet followed up on. This means that India still harbours reservations about the OBOR and there remain possibilities of confrontation emerging as the respective naval footprints of the two sides continue to expand and intersect in the South China Sea and in the Indian Ocean.
Overall, one could say that the visit was a hopeful beginning and may have created the political ambience within which the more contentious issues could be managed better, if not resolved.
Modi has consciously followed a strategy of building relations with one major power to enhance India’s leverage with other major powers. The China visit owes some of its success to the gains India made thanks to Modi’s reaching out to the US, on the one hand, and Japan, on the other. He has also asserted India’s interests in the Indian Ocean with high-profile visits to Sri Lanka, Mauritius and the Seychelles.
This is a good strategy, but at the end of the day, the world will be watching to see how much of the promise translates into practical action and progress on the ground. The weakness of follow-through processes is much more difficult to deal with than orchestrating a successful event.
Shyam Saran is former foreign secretary and currently chairman, RIS, and senior fellow, CPR
The views expressed are personal