Modi leaps over Great Wall of Mistrust (Sunday Guardian)
MADHAV NALAPAT Baijing | 23rd May 2015
n just three days in China, high-level policymakers here claim that Prime Minister Narendra Modi succeeded in "leaping over the wall of mistrust and doubt" that had clouded India-China relations since the 1959 move of the Dalai Lama from Lhasa to Dharamsala. This is reminiscent of the personal chemistry that developed between Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and China's Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping during the former's 1988 visit to Beijing, and which has continued in the form of contacts between the daughters of both leaders, who continue to exchange messages and gifts (such as books) to each other. Although the Rajiv-Deng rapport was too short-lived (in view of the 1989 Congress defeat) to lead to any lasting changes in the often turbulent texture of relations between the two most populous countries on the globe, a senior policymaker said that the coming years are on track to "ensure a breakthrough even in the border negotiations". At present, China has undefined borders only with India and Bhutan, and — because of the close links between the PLA and the Pakistan army — has shown little urgency to rectify this.
Chinese policymakers pointed out that the "level, time spent and intensity" of meetings and discussions between Prime Minister Modi and his counterparts in the world's other superpower "were even greater than during the visit of President Obama" in November 2014. Not only did President Xi Jinping "break protocol and diplomatic tradition" and greet the Prime Minister of India in the capital of his home province of Shaanxi, but even Premier Li Keqiang "spent an entire day in the company of PM Modi and discussed with him how to move the relationship to a strategic level", this despite a very busy schedule that week. "Relations with India have been de-linked from South Asia and placed in a global context" by President Xi, who has established a degree of control over both the civil and military structures of his government, unprecedented since the passing away of Mao Zedong in 1976. According to Chinese interlocutors, Xi's objectives are to (a) place the relationship with India in a strategic i.e. long-term perspective; (b) ensure a connect between development strategies so that both sides work in a complementary way to ensure mutual prosperity; (c) establish regular communication and understudying between all levels of the two governments and societies; and (d) generate mutual trust so that differences do not graduate into disputes and tensions into crises
Interestingly, in an emphasis on the civilisational links that have bound the two countries across millennia, "the unprecedented welcome ceremony for Prime Minister Modi at Xian was the same as for a visiting monarch in past millennia", with costumes, themes and songs reflecting the ancient traditions of Xian. Since the Hu Jintao period, the Chinese Communist Party has supported a revival of ancient Chinese culture, including its toleration for Buddhism, and the people of China were "very happy to see the respectful way in which (PM Modi) visited ancient Buddhist temples", according to a senior official, whose daughter is herself a Buddhist despite the family being Communist Party members since the 1940s
Interestingly, for the first time since the 1950s, a summit-level visit between China and India took place without any of the usual media reports of troop movements or tensions on the border, clearly showing that "both leaders have the power and the will to ensure that their policy of mutual regard prevails over more sectional interests within each system that may have a vested interest in the perpetuation of mistrust and tension" between Delhi and Beijing. While reports in the media spoke of $10 billion and sometimes $20 billion in deals between the two sides, a senior advisor pointed out that "the 45 government-to-government agreements signed by the two sides themselves account for $32 billion of investment into India". Chinese experts say that Prime Minister Modi had a "very useful" interaction with top Chinese businesspersons in Shanghai, including Alibaba's Jack Ma, and "convinced them that he had both the sincerity and the will to ensure that Chinese investment was given the same treatment as that from countries with which India has long had commercial ties, and that discrimination will be absent". In this context, Prime Minister Modi's announcement that e-visas would be granted to Chinese tourists "had an electric impact, including on Foreign Minister Wang Yi", as "officials from India had previously indicated to their Chinese counterparts that this would not be possible for some time to come". The expectation is that "several billion dollars of investment will be made in India from China over the course of the next two to three years", or well before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
That Prime Minister Modi faces some bureaucratic obstacles in his quest for transforming policy in India became clear when an official in Berlin revealed in private to this correspondent that "days after Prime Minister Modi himself told Chancellor Angela Merkel about Indian interest in the Eurofighter, a senior Indian diplomat called on the (German) National Security Advisor and told him to disregard this comment from the Prime Minister". He added that German officials are now confused about "who exactly to believe in connection with the Eurofighter, Prime Minister Modi or the Indian diplomat". Thus far, Prime Minister Modi has followed the Gujarat model of loading his team with serving and retired bureaucrats, rather than leavening the mix with talent from outside. However, in China, the assessment is that "Prime Minister Modi is very much in charge" and that, "like Xi, he will be able to ensure that the official machinery follows the track decided upon by the two leaders".
Clearly, as with President Obama, the personal chemistry of Narendra Damodardas Modi has had the effect of creating strong links of friendship and personal regard between President Xi Jinping and him. Chinese policymakers pointed out that in the past year, Prime Minister Modi and President Xi "have met an unprecedented four times" (at South Africa, Brazil, India and China) and that both intend to ensure a "level of communication between the two sides which better reflects the importance of the relationship" in global geopolitics. Interestingly, for the first time in nearly six decades, officials in China appear to be optimistic that a settlement of the border dispute could take place "within the terms in office of President Xi and PM Modi", thereby removing a major irritant in relations. In the meantime, several measures are being planned to ensure that border differences do not escalate as they have in the past. Military-to-military contacts are to be accelerated, and there is a high possibility that India will participate in the 3 September march-past in Beijing commemorating 70 years since the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945, a war in which more than two million Indian soldiers served with valour, but who were not invited to participate during the 2014 anniversary celebrations of the Normandy landings in France, despite the immense contribution of Indian troops to the war against Germany during 1939-45.
Chinese media too witnessed massive coverage of the Modi visit, vying in space and television time with the earlier Obama visit. Barring a few discordant notes (some linked to the Jiang Zemin faction in Shanghai), coverage was positive, with the focus being on the "transformative Indian leader" and his rapport with President Xi. A notable highlight was the fact that "the younger generation in China has taken to the Prime Minister", as evidenced by the warmth of his reception at Tsinghua and Fudan universities, and the way in which PM Modi interacted with the Chinese people at each stop. Overall, the scope for $300 billion of two-way trade and investment between China and India seems on the verge of operationalisation, largely because of the impressive Modi-Xi chemistry on display last week in China.