'Inching towards miles'

Expectations from Xi visit

It is hard to recollect a tidal wave of expectations surrounding the visit by a Chinese leader. Prime minister Narendra Modi’s decision to receive Xi Jinping on the banks of the ancient Sabarmati river, a cradle of Buddhism, and the Chinese leader’s determination to set foot on Indian soil exactly on Modi’s birthday in his home state in a poignant setting that harks back to Xuanzang, who epitomises the civilisational links, defining this landmark event.

Why is Modi attaching such unprecedented importance to a Chinese leader’s visit? Is the strategic environment propitious? Is Modi’s road map – to my mind, he definitely has one – sustainable? These are three key templates that need to be explored.
Quite obviously, economic diplomacy enjoys primacy in Modi’s scheme of things. The big mandate he secured in the last parliament election was based on the development agenda he pledged and Modi is acutely conscious of fickle-minded public opinion. In the public perceptions the impact of his agenda will depend on his successes in the following order: capping and rolling back the rising youth employment; curbing price rise in food and essential commodities and responsive governance.

Now, the financial crisis and the Great Recession of 2008 exposed the severe limitations of the Western model, which the UPA era’s ‘economic diplomacy’ spearheaded by the then prime minister Manmohan Singh had hooked into. Modi’s accent lies in India’s manufacturing sector and infrastructure development that hold manifold potentials of job creation as compared to sectors such as e-commerce, telecom or pharmaceuticals -- the kind of areas that the Western multinationals generally focused on. Of course, India needs Western technology but it also needs to produce jobs on the mammoth scale that the Indian youth streaming out of the campuses in lakhs every year would expect Modi to create. Clearly, Modi’s priority is not the Walmart.

The period since 2008 has also shaken up the faith in the Western industrial economies being the locomotive of growth for the world economy. In fact, where Western economic models failed, the mixed economies and ‘non-democratic’ political systems, especially China, weathered the storm and thrived. Indeed, Modi visited China no less than four times during this period of epochal upheaval in modern history.

China has calibrated its strategy toward India to suit Modi’s economic agenda and thereby hopes to transform the overall relationship. China has investible surplus and possesses experience in undertaking massive labour-intensive projects, and as it goes up the production chain, the vast Indian market is best tapped by setting up manufacturing units in India, which also partially addresses the trade imbalance.
Towards ‘Asian Century’

What China hopes to secure is a ‘level playing field’ in political terms to compete with Japanese or Western business rivals and if the South-East Asian example is anything to go by, its optimism is reasonable. The strategic fallout is no less important. Far beyond an immediate requirement to ‘neutralise’ India as a potential ‘lynchpin’ in the US’ containment strategy, China has been proposing that the two countries together negotiate far more effectively with the established Western powers to vacate space to the emerging countries in the world order. Again, China counts on Modi’s panache for the ‘Asian Century’.

The Chinese perspectives have changed with regard to India’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation; China accepted India’s demarche that the New Development Bank set up by the BRICS should provide for a democratised system of management with equal voting rights; China has invited India to be a founder-member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank being set up this year end and to associate with the Maritime Silk Road initiative that goes with it.

On the other hand, from the Indian viewpoint, apart from China helping with investments to build up a manufacturing industry and infrastructure on a mammoth scale that is way beyond the capacity or level of interest (or focus) of the Western partners (including Japan), an irreducible minimum would also be that India and China settle pragmatically for maintaining peace and tranquility at all costs on their disputed borders without which a smooth and steady expansion of fruitful cooperation becomes problematic.

Therefore, Modi is justified in calculating that India is a net beneficiary in this historic gambit to break fresh ground with China. To be sure, Modi will run into headwinds. There are influential quarters within India weaned on Sinophobia, who already look startled. The paradox is that they also happen to subscribe to the ideology of right wing nationalism and yet feel being left behind. This was not what the Modi era was expected to be.

But then, they fail to appreciate that China is no longer ‘communist’ or is stupid enough to commit external aggression and tarnish the ‘soft power’ emanating out of its stunning success story of ‘harmonious rise’. They misconstrue China’s emergent priorities as a global power, and cannot comprehend that China’s attitude to Pakistan or the Kashmir problem has phenomenally changed over the past decade or two.
Thus, they are paranoid that it is China that is egging on staunch nationalists like Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa to relentlessly seek strategic advantages out of the multipolar world order, and they proceed to misread China’s motivations to fasten the sea lanes through which it conducts the overwhelming bulk of its foreign trade.
Dissident opinions could be endemic to democracies, but some of these dissonant voices would have male fide intentions. The fact remains that one of India’s major attractions for the Western countries is that it has the world’s grandest arms bazaar worth dozens of billions of dollars.

However, if there is any national leader who can force-march India’s Sinophobes, it is Modi. If he succeeds, India’s foreign policies will have changed beyond recognition and an unbound India can hope to spread its wings beyond its region. As Modi told the Chinese media, he is intensely conscious that he needs to “inch towards miles.”

(The writer is a former ambassador)

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