Friday 11 October 2019

Xi-Modi Summit will change Sino-Indian ties (Pakistan Observer)

M D Nalapat

THE leaders of two countries that together have 2.7 billion people under their charge are holding their second informal summit meeting in the South Indian resort of Mahabalipuram. The first took place a year ago in the Chinese city of Wuhan. This columnist stayed at Wuhan some months ago and stayed at the guest house where both President Xi and Prime Minister Modi resided during their first summit. Photographs of both leaders were prominently displayed at both the guest house and on the shores of the lake that was the scene of a boat ride taken by the two leaders. The Wuhan Summit represented a conscious decision by the two top leaders of India and China respectively to take control of the relationship. The bureaucracies of both India as well as China have numerous elements that remain tethered to past mindsets that regard the other country as less than a friend.
Only if the top leadership of both countries takes charge of the relationship can it escape the quicksand of historical tensions and bureaucratic inertia. Rather than small steps, what is needed in Sino-Indian relations is a “Great Leap Forward”, the term used by the first leader of the Peoples Republic of China, Mao Zedong, to refer to his plans for rapid growth of the Chinese economy. Although there are many scholars who fault the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR) launched by Mao in the 1960s, the reality is that the immense changes within the Chinese Communist Party that were caused by the successive shocks to the leadership structure intentionally caused by Chairman Mao through the GPCR created conditions for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to adopt the far-sighted plans during the 1980s of Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping to reform the Chinese economy. Without the changes caused by the Cultural Revolution, the top rungs of the CCP would not have allowed Deng to introduce reforms that were so different from the past policies of the state in matters relating to the economy.
President Xi Jinping, whose family was among those deeply affected by the Cultural Revolution, has emerged as the most powerful Chinese leader since Chairman Mao, and it can be expected that bold moves will be made by President Xi,including in economic matters and on the issue of relations with India. On the Indian side, Prime Minister Modi is similarly strong-willed,and ready to take actions that are unprecedented. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, he welcomed Chinese investment in the state, and also made a very successful visit to China, where he was given a very cordial reception. It helped that Modi understood the psychology of his hosts and had the visiting cards handed out ( of course in Mandarin) tinted in red, the colour of the Little Red Book containing Chairman Mao’s thoughts that has made a comeback in China under Xi.
The power point presentation made by (then Chief Minister) Modi was entirely in Mandarin, a first for a VIP visitor from India, whose presentations were usually in English or Hindi. As Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has shown a willingness to walk the extra mile for better relations with the Second Superpower, which is why he ignored the counsel of cautious bureaucrats and flew from Delhi to Wuhan last year for a ground-breaking “informal summit” between himself and Xi. This arrangement is unique to India and China and not adopted by the leadership of the two countries in relation to ties with any other country than themselves. With President Xi’s visit to meet Prime Minister Modi in India, the second Informal Summit has given depth and institutional foundations to this interaction between the leaders of China and India. It is expected that several decisions will be taken by the two leaders during their interaction that will have a substantial impact on the relationship between China and India.
Both Xi and Modi are very conscious of the 5000-year history and culture of their respective countries. It was after careful reflection that Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu state was chosen as the venue of the Second Informal Summit between Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi. More than a thousand years ago, the region was part of the Chola kingdom, which had extensive trade relations with China. Holding the summit in such a location reminds both sides of the long historical ties between India and China, and the common strands of culture and tradition that unite two civilisations that have lasted through the millenia. President Xi is known to be a keen student of history with an affinity for culture, as is Modi. The beauty of the format of the talks is precisely that there is no format.
The two leaders will meet and speak to each other as old friends, bringing up subjects that are often difficult and contentious but in a friendly way. Once an agreement gets reached, both leaders are powerful enough to see that those below them in the governance hierarchy carry out their instructions. An example is the return of the Bank of China to India, which closed its operations after the 1962 border war and never returned. The matter came up for discussion at Wuhan, and Prime Minister Modi saw to it that the bank was enabled to return to conduct business in India, a country with which China has nearly $ 100 billion in trade and a $ 60 billion trade surplus, with a potential of $ 300 billion within five years. Among the matters pending decision is on whether to permit Huawei to enter the 5G market in India, or to go by what the Trump Administration is seeking, which is to ban Huawei altogether despite the cost and technological advantages of the product.
Whether it be in Artificial Intelligence or in 5G, the Trump Administration is working on overdrive to try and restrict markets for Chinese products, so that the US retains the hi-tech lead that the world’s first superpower has established for so many decades. The US-China trade war is in essence a series of steps taken by Trump to choke off future competition from China in a manner that the European countries are unable to do. Germany, for example, has become a bystander while China moves forward to establish mastery over products such as machine tools and the automobile, that as of now Germany is leading in. In brief years, it is expected that China will produce civilian aircraft capable of challenging Airbus and Boeing, the way the country is producing military aircraft.
In such a process, access to the Indian market is of prime importance, and this will be a major undercurrent of discussions between the two leaders. In a show of independence from US dictates, as yet the authorities in India have not blocked Huawei from participating in the 5G auctions soon to take place. The final decision on this and other matters will come after the Xi-Modi summit. For decades to come, the US and China will be the two largest economies on the planet. India will be close behind. The relationship between the three will be crucial in determining the direction of geopolitical currents. Will India join the US and actively seek to block China from moving ahead? Or will it remain “non-aligned” between Washington and Beijing? This is the question that the second informal summit between Xi and Modi will help answer.

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