President Pranab Mukherjee’s China visit comes at a time when bilateral ties appear to have lost some steam since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip in May last year.
An air of anticipation about the two countries forging fresh ties was whipped up in the months between President Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September, 2014 and Modi’s China visit eight months later.
In about a year, that expectation has thinned and given way to hard foreign policy and diplomatic realities; New Delhi and Beijing continue to be poles apart on many issues.
China’s decisions to block New Delhi’s move in the United Nations to designate Pakistan-based JeM chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist, and preventing India from becoming a member of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) were interpreted as decidedly anti-India positions taken by Beijing.
Beijing, meanwhile, has been wary of New Delhi cosying up strategically and militarily to the US and Japan and have expressed indignation at India’s statements on the dispute-ridden South China Sea.
At the end of 2015, bilateral trade never got close to the much-touted $ 100 billion-mark; it was $ 71.6 billion last year.
So, what can be expected from Mukherjee’s visit?
Experts say the visit itself is a sign that the two countries are regularising high-level visits as part of bilateral political process.
“Ever since 1988, when the normalisation process of Sino-India relations started, one of the most significant stabilisers of bilateral relations is maintaining such top level exchanges, which have been conducive in reducing mutual misunderstanding, misjudging, misgivings and mistrust,” said Hu Shisheng, South Asia expert at the government-affiliated China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations said.
“It is not merely a reciprocal visit. It is intended to indicate that despite ups and downs, both countries will continue political dialogue at the highest level,” Alka Acharya, director, Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi, told HT.
Mukherjee’s visit to Guangzhou is expected to firm up “better business contacts, especially in seeking Chinese investment,” political scientist and eminent China scholar Manoranjan Mohanty said, adding: “Since PM Modi did not visit Guangzhou last year and this city is emerging as a major power house of the next stage of the reforms -- producing not just for exports but for domestic market -- his visit is significant.”
Pakistan, of course, could well be in focus in Mukherjee’s discussion with China’s top leaders.
“Beijing has a history of blocking sanctions against Pakistan-based militants at the UN. So although the Masood Azhar case has attracted a higher profile, it’s of a piece with what China has been doing for years. The same is true of the NSG,” Andrew Small from the US-based German Marshall Fund said.
Small, author of ‘The China Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics,’ said there is little progress likely on these issues.
“China isn’t fundamentally going to shift its approach to Pakistan, and is tending, if anything, to reinforce its support,” Small said.
The broad opinion is the same: that the China-India big picture will remain the same as the two countries navigate and negotiate differences while attempting to forge stronger economic ties.
As Small said: “I think India and China have become more sophisticated at doing these things in parallel, rather than attempting to portray the relationship in black and white terms.”