Modi and Xi need to balance interdependence and strategic rivalry

  • Sushil Aaron, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 17, 2014 15:13 IST

India-China summits invariably feature elements of fanfare, surprise and uncertainty – and President Xi Jinping visit promises to be no different.

Both sides will, first, be straining to ensure that the visit in no way pales in comparison to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Japan. Beijing has already announced that Xi’s visit will see investments worth $100 billion in India – which China’s consul general in Mumbai pointedly noted was “thrice the investments committed by Japan”.

These investments will be committed to infrastructure projects such as high speed rail, industrial parks, highways, ports, automobiles and power. The US would be hard pressed to match these when Modi visits later this month.

A challenge for the diplomats this time will be to ensure that the rhetoric and deliverables exceed those agreed during the May 2013 visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang – which yielded an expansive 35 point joint statement full of solemn intent and high-minded discourse. It said “both countries view each other as partners for mutual benefit and not as rivals or competitors”.

Li described India and China as “good friends that can speak to each other with candour” and frequently referred to the global significance of both countries developing together. Li and Manmohan Singh agreed, among other things, to increase high-level dialogue, address the trade imbalance, improve Indian access to Chinese markets in the IT and pharma sector, establish industrial zones, promote clean energy and increase exchanges between the militaries. China also agreed to provide hydrological data to allay India’s concerns about water flows into the Brahmaputra.

Xi’s visit will see striking outcomes, but an element of surprise has already been injected with reports that Chinese civilians and army personnel intruded into the Indian side in Ladakh on Monday, demanding that an irrigation project, close to the Line of Actual Control, be stopped.

Read: India says boundary issue will be discussed during Xi's visit

The MEA and the Army have both downplayed the incident, but the news will rile hawks in the Indian strategic community who usually reckon that such an intrusion cannot happen without sanction from Beijing – and see in this yet another proof that China wants to periodically throw India off balance. The incursion – assuming it had Beijing’s imprimatur – could be seen as: (a) a subtle Chinese probe to test Indian responses at sensitive moments and gauge if New Delhi is able to manage domestic rhetoric (b) a move to placate hardliners in the People’s Liberation Army and (c) a gentle payback to Modi for obliquely referring to Chinese expansionism during his Japan visit.

And therein lies the element of the unknown in India-China ties following the Modi-Xi summit. Can both, as strong Asian leaders with recognised dominance over their political systems, set relations on a trajectory that insulate it from misperceptions and shocks? Both leaders want economic ties to feed domestic growth but would need to develop interdependence while managing strategic ambitions. Modi clearly sees development of Indian infrastructure, with Chinese and Japanese help, as crucial for India’s future – and his own.

Read: How PM Modi is reaching out to China via Japan

Indian analysts would, however, be keen to discern if Xi is similarly invested in the India relationship. Many will point to China’s increasing military might, its cluster of relationships in the neighbourhood that “encircle” India, China’s “stronger than steel” friendship with Pakistan, Beijing’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea as proof of its hegemonic intent. Equally, international scholars argue that China is still debating its posture in the world. Its policymakers, they reckon, may display belligerence concerning a core area of interest such as the South China Sea but overall Beijing seeks a cooperative, stable international climate to focus on internal challenges. Xi himself has called for a stronger military to deter bullying by foreign powers but he has also energetically expanded China’s global outreach, including with Russia, a power India is close to. The India relationship thus hangs in the balance as China ponders the world. A $100 billion commitment is not much for a country that has over $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. But it is a sizeable investment to test if the India and China can develop interlocking ties that can durably manage strategic suspicions.

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