M D Nalapat
The two-day meeting in China’s Wuhan will be confined to the Indian Prime Minister and the Chinese President.
The top leaders of India and China, which together have a population in excess of 2.6 billion, are to meet this week in Wuhan, a picturesque city in China. The two-day meeting will be confined to the two principals, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Xi Jinping of China. Both are believers in the 21st century as belonging to Asia, and recognise that for this to occur, the two largest countries on the continent need to act in concert on several matters. Although both sides have routinely described the relationship between Beijing and Delhi in glowing terms, the reality remains that to this day, it is not a normal state-to-state relationship. There are tensions and constraints on both sides that hold back the immense potential for cooperation and mutual benefit. The effort of the two leaders will be to create an atmosphere of conciliation, cooperation and trust that would spread to lower levels, which could then begin to operationalise policies and programmes designed to benefit both countries mutually. “The oxygen of trust can be created through the meeting (of the two leaders), and this improvement in atmosphere will then reach all levels” such that impediments to cooperation get removed on both sides, a senior official revealed. A colleague added that “the meeting between President Xi and Prime Minister Modi indicates that both leaders accept the need for the two countries to evolve understandings and mechanisms to promote harmony”. He added that the “unprecedented bilateral meeting” at Wuhan during this final week of April would be a “game changer” in the relationship between India and China.
Luck has favoured Narendra Modi since 2014, beginning with the way in which the swelling anti-incumbency wave against the UPA worked in his favour electorally. Next followed the collapse of world oil prices, thereby giving the Ministry of Finance a substantial cushion for releasing funds. Despite glitches such as the 2016 demonetisation of 86% of currency and the initial complexity of the GST when first rolled out, the Indian economy has performed better than that of any other large country, including China, and this has given PM Modi both status as well as a platform to enter the top tier of world leaders. This new status was apparent last week in Europe, when the leaders of the Nordic countries met the Prime Minister, followed by bilateral meetings in London and Berlin with Prime Minister Theresa May and Chancellor Angela Merkel. The President of France, Emmanuel Macron, has, within a short time, built up a close relationship with PM Modi, as has US President Donald Trump. In such a context, Xi Jinping will be looking to Wuhan to further an equally warm relationship with the Prime Minister of India. Despite some carping and negativity from Indian and Chinese media, officials in Beijing acknowledge that India will emerge as the third biggest economy on the planet just a few years after China overtakes the United States as the largest economy on the globe. “Rather than the US and India combining against China (once Beijing overtakes Washington) and increasing instability, it is better for the world and for all three countries that India, China and the US work together for global peace and prosperity”, a senior official pointed out.
Officials in Beijing say that President Xi, unlike predecessors such as Jiang Zemin, “acknowledges India to be a major power” and has, therefore, “instructed his team to give special attention to developing better ties” with India. While the Chinese economy is presently five times bigger than India’s, “this gap will get lower over time”. Hence, “closer economic cooperation between both countries would create a win-win outcome”, an expert close to the policy establishment pointed out. In the context of a spike in trade tensions with the US, and given recent moves by the Trump administration to block business linkages with PRC companies such as Huawei and ZTE, the Indian market has become crucial to the future operations of several Chinese technology companies, who are confident of overcoming competition from the US, Europe and Japan. “The Chinese leadership respects PM Modi for his boldness in taking tough decisions such as demonetisation”, an official claimed, adding that “only strong leaders such as Modi and Xi can take forward the relationship between the two giants of Asia at speed”. Officials point out to the “first time ever cultural welcome” given by Xi to Modi at Xian, where “Chinese traditional culture was on display to the leader of a country with an equally ancient civilisation”.
The two leaders are expected to focus on the big picture, “looking from the high mountain” of long-term historical perspective and overall interests, rather than zeroing in on specific problem areas. “Once the top leaders establish the atmosphere for taking forward the relationship in a smooth and constructive manner, the official machinery can take up the job of ensuring that this happens”, a senior official pointed out, adding that “before the third decade of the 21st century, both India and China need to work together to solve regional and global challenges”. That no advisors and no ministers will be present in the room with Xi and Modi at a summit of the leaders of nearly 40% of the world’s population, indicates the importance both leaders are giving to their own role in improving relations between the two countries. The problem areas are several. There is the question of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passing through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. There is the effort by elements of the international community to make Dharamsala the permanent home of not just the XIV Dalai Lama of Tibet, but the very institution of the Dalai Lama once His Holiness passes, and therefore that of a possible XV Dalai Lama, who is likely to face a challenger based in Tibet. How such matters will get resolved remains to be seen. The view in Beijing is that the importance of India and China working together is so important that “patriotic elements of both countries will succeed in blocking efforts by third countries (such as Pakistan or Japan) to slow down or derail Sino-Indian relations”. Clearly, President Xi and PM Modi are seen as the vanguard of such “patriotic elements”, which is why the Chinese side is looking with unusual anticipation at PM Modi’s arrival at Wuhan in China for an informal and exclusive meeting of two of the world’s top four global leaders (the others being President Trump and President Putin).