M D NalapatSaturday, May 16, 2015 - NARENDRA Damodardas Modi has made China, Mongolia and South Korea his final ports of call during his first year as Prime Minister. Of the three,the most consequential visit is to Beijing, where the Prime Minister seeks to initiate a robust relationship built on trust. With the United States,such a chemistry developed during the second term of President George W Bush,and survived Hillary Clinton’s efforts to prise concession after concession out of India as a “reward” for Washington giving Delhi its due.
During the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington nine months ago,it had been suggested by some experts that India should base a squadron of fighter aircraft in Damascus (with the cooperation of the Assad regime) and another in Baghdad (in partnership with the Iraqi government) and use these to wage war against ISIS bases and strongholds. By such a move,India would simultaneously signal its independence from Washington ( by taking the consent of the Assad regime) and join the US,Saudi Arabia,Jordan and other countries active in the air war against the terror organisation created out of the Libyan and Syrian post-2011 conflicts. However,the plan was shot down by influential individuals within the Modi government,who saw it as provocative and likely to make India a target of ISIS,who could for example kidnap or kill Indian citizens working in the GCC states.
The problem with such a chain of reasoning is that there is no question of ISIS declaring war on India in future,the organisation has already done so,and is simply awaiting a suitable opportunity to strike. As for nationals within the GCC, the fact is that Egypt too has a large expatriate population within the sheikhdoms,yet that has not prevented Cairo from militarily joining the war against ISIS or led to any additional danger to its citizens working locally in Qatar,Saudi Arabia,Bahrain,the UAE,Oman and Kuwait. The fact is that India’s participation in the war against ISIS would have been a game-changer in Washington,silencing the anti-India group within the various branches of the US administration and boosting the country’s profile on the international stage. Prime Time calls for the acceptance of a calibrated degree of risk. If a country is risk-averse (as the USSR was during the period when Leonid Brezhnev was in charge), not using its military assets except against smaller foes or hesitating to deploy the full weight of its strike capability once it was in trouble,as in Afghanistan during the 1980s, that country will lose out in geopolitical arenas.
However,just as Obama has finally shaken off the Clinton overhang which suffused his team, Narendra Modi appears to be gaining expertise in ensuring that the errors made in the past by an overly timid bureaucratic structure get avoided. This is evident in his approach to China,towards which his policy is very different from that of the bureaucracy. An example is in the granting of visas to Chinese tourists,many hundreds of millions of whom are Buddhists and therefore have an affinity to the land of the Buddha,India. Because of security concerns (or rather,excuses), only around 45.000 Chinese tourists visited India last year,out of a record 97 million going abroad,many millions to much smaller countries such as Thailand or France,which welcome such visitors by cutting away the red tape which blocks their smooth entry. If the US or France can deal with the “security” issues posed by huge numbers of tourists from China,surely India can as well,which is why Prime Minister Modi is implementing a liberalised visa regime for China,a demand of the tourism sector in India for decades.
Security agencies,acting on cues supplied by developed countries hostile to a Sino-Indian rapprochement, have thus far blocked major Chinese investment in India. The consequence has been that it is factories in China that produce the billions of dollars of items imported by India ( whose trade deficit with China crossed $47 billion last year). Had investment been permitted,much of such goods could have been manufactured by plants located in India that employ Indian workers and pay taxes in India. Such logic is,however,alien to the bureaucracy in India,which gets tethered to an idea (in this instance,that India cannot deal with the threat perceived in Chinese investment,and hence it is best to block such a flow of capital into the country) and thereafter refuses to even adapt it to at least partly take account of changing circumstances, much less abandon such out of date concepts completely.
Since the welcome given to President Xi Jinping and his charming spouse in Gandhinagar during the visit of China’s First Couple to India, there has developed a strong chemistry between the Head of State of the Peoples Republic of China and the Had of Government of the Republic of India. Both have achieved a familiarity with each other that enables them to be open about disagreements,but also to go the extra mile in taking advantage of the opportunities available for synergy between the two most populous countries on the globe. In a gesture of friendship,President Xi travelled to his hometown, Xian,to greet Prime Minister Modi and go with him to places such as an ancient temple built according to Indian traditions of two thousand years back. After that,a banquet hosted by Xi himself,with the two leaders spending hours together in an atmosphere warmer than that between any Chinese and Indian leaders since Rajiv Gandhi met Deng Xiaoping in 1988.
During that meeting,the Chinese leader offered a border settlement which preserved the status quo,with small concessions by China in the western sector and equally minor concessions by India in the east. However, Rajiv Gandhi’s political advisors warned that such a deal would lose him votes in the elections next year,a specious argument that a cautious Rajiv accepted. As it happened, Rajiv Gandhi lost the election anyway,while a border settlement with China may have boosted both his image within India as well as internationally. Will the trust between Xi and Modi prove sufficient to ensure a border settlement during their terms in office? If so,history will mark that as a significant achievement,certainly deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize.