Narendra Modi broke protocol to greet Barack Obama at Delhi airport. China’s Xi Jinping responded by breaking protocol to greet Sushma Swaraj in Beijing. The Indo-US strategic vision document on the Asia-Pacific, despite a reference to the South China Sea, wasn’t mentioned to the Indian foreign minister.
Modi has given possibly more thought to China than he has to any other bilateral relationship, privately consulting many leading China experts in India over the past few months.
One of Modi’s decisions was to be upfront about India’s concerns, and to do so with the US and Japan, about Beijing’s assertiveness. As the US media reported, he broached the China problem with Obama, found a kindred spirit and the vision document was born. This followed advice to Modi by China hands that Beijing took New Delhi more seriously when India was close to the US.
“Whether we spell out our common views with the US or not, the Chinese understand these exist anyway. It is best to spell them out,” says Jayadeva Ranade, head of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy.
Another of Modi’s decisions was to signal an interest in Chinese investment and a border settlement. He has underlined this in every one of his meetings with Xi.
This has been music to Xi’s ears. In Beijing’s view, the territorial dispute is an open wound in bilateral ties that it has wanted to get out of the way for years. Officials in China have repeatedly communicated to their counterparts in India that with “two strong leaders” in power, they saw an opportunity for a border settlement.
This has given Modi considerable leeway with the Chinese. It is not only Swaraj who was received by a higher-ranking Chinese official.
So have almost every emissary Modi has sent to China, including National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.
Beijing has ignored that Modi’s favourite world leader is Japan’s nationalist PM, Shinzo Abe. It similarly said nothing about the Indo-US vision document. Or that Modi declined to endorse Xi’s signature Maritime Silk Road project.
Swaraj’s six-point template for improving relations hit all the right buttons with Xi — particularly the commitment to an early settlement of the border, a goal of a 20-fold increase in Chinese investment in India and a promise of an “outcome” driven Modi state visit in May.
The last is especially important for Beijing. Its hard-nosed leadership is unmoved by rhetoric but impressed by those who can convert words into deeds. Modi’s challenge will be to implement what he says. Even more than closeness to the US this will give China reason to take India seriously.