In Mahabalipuram, Modi, Xi can carve out co-op niches

The Big Lens

Seshadri Chari focuses on big national and international developments and reads between the lines

The second informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping is to be held at the UNESCO heritage site of Mahabalipuram, which was once a thriving sea port and trading point of India reaching out to the vast lands of East and South East Asia even before it became part of the Pallava empire. It is as significant and historic as Wuhan was.

Though the official announcement of the meeting is yet to be made, preparations are underway on both sides. While Chennai is getting ready to roll out the red carpet, a thick security blanket has been cast over the city and especially the historic site.

Beijing is also preparing for the meeting, but in a different style. Days before Xi boards the plane for New Delhi, he would have met Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan who would be there to attend the China-Pakistan Business Forum, organised by the China Council for the Promotion of Internal Trade. Trade will be high on the agenda between India and China, too.

Beijing will have to take extra care to see that Xi’s meeting with Khan does not cast a shadow of uncertainty over his India visit. China’s support for Pakistan, its involvement in CPEC and the strident anti-India stand after the abrogation of Article 370 are no secrets. More importantly, Beijing has protested Delhi’s decision to make two Union Territories, J&K and Ladakh, out of the state of J&K, though it is none of China’s business as these are strictly internal matters of India.

Xi’s India visit will come in the wake of the celebration of 70 years of the Chinese Communist Party’s iron grip over power and people. The event showcased the military might of China by parading new generation tanks, powerful DF-41 inter-continental nuclear missiles, supersonic drones and other deadly war machines. Xi and his team watched the parade from a rostrum overlooking Tiananmen Square just at the time protesters in Hong Kong were clashing with riot police, demanding democracy and freedom from China.

The Hong Kong protests appear to be the biggest challenge Beijing has faced in these 70 years. In the background of the ongoing trade war between US and China and considering the alarm in the US strategic community over the rise of China as the world’s second largest economy, Xi’s assertion that “There is no force that can shake the foundation of this great nation” assumes greater importance.

Although the US continues to be the leader in investments in science and technology (about $500 billion) and innovation (over 10 million patents), China is fast catching up in S&T investment (about $420 billion). Though this in itself is not an immediate cause of worry for the US and the rest of the world, the development of dual-use technologies and the rising warhead count should be cause for concern. More importantly, successive Chinese regimes have been known to have lent a helping hand to rouge states in their clandestine nuclear programmes. China’s military-based S&T programme is more likely to reshape and enhance its strategic nuclear capabilities. The recently paraded DF-41 ICBM is said to have a range covering the western border of the US. China’s weaponisation of space and strides in cyber warfare are causes for concern for countries in the Indo-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) in the immediate neighbourhood of India.

The Modi-Xi summit assumes great importance in this background. After hitting the reset button on India-US ties during Modi’s recent US visit, New Delhi expected a favourable India-US trade pact. Foreign Minister Jaishankar was hopeful that there would be a breakthrough, but that seems elusive for now. Meanwhile, Trump is hopeful he can win in the trade war with China.

New Delhi will have to put forward its best diplomatic foot while convincing Xi that New Delhi’s stand on J&K is non-negotiable and India cannot allow CPEC to pass through Pakistan-occupied Indian territory. But Delhi should have no second thoughts on cooperating with China on trade and other important issues, like global warming.

China’s priorities are primarily focussed towards winning the race for global supremacy in competition with the US. With the South China Sea firmly under its control, China is strategising to exercise greater control over the evolving Indo-Pacific economic zone where the US had powerful allies and military presence. The idea of the QUAD is a counter strategic move, where India is playing a seminal role. The world is increasingly recognising the importance of India’s growing economic and strategic clout.

But with all these advantages, it will be in the best interest of New Delhi to play the balancing game and secure India’s economic and security interests and not allow the region to become the arena for the global power game and its attendant arms race.

The first India-China informal summit took place about 70 days after the face-off with the PLA in Doklam. The two nuclear weapons powers came face to face, and threw stones at each other. That was the power of patience and concerted efforts at de-escalation by the two political heads on either side.

The second India-China informal summit in Mahabalipuram will in all likelihood pave the way for greater understanding between India and China in the changing geopolitical scenario.

 

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