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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 21, May 16, 2015

Sino - Indian Relations: Are Xi and Modi setting the Right Agenda despite Irritants?

Saturday 16 May 2015, by Uttam Sen

According to one well-regarded international newspaper, it was just one of those things that naïve Chinese commanders had directed their men to cross into Indian territory during Xi Jinping’s visit to India in September 2014, to the annoyance of the Indian public in general and the Prime Minister in particular. Serious strategists tend to discount minor aberrations in their ordered paradigms and the thought of China’s most powerful President since Deng Xiaoping either having his position flouted or not being in the know would be unthinkable. What could not be prevented was the impression in India that the Chinese were deliberately asserting themselves.

Two things happened after the border incidents. One, Xi was widely reported to have briefed the Army brass on the urgency of familiarity not only with the national condition but the larger international situation. Second, those who directed the transgressions last year have subsequently been dismissed from service. The latter was the curious snippet that featured in a preview of Modi’s China visit. For the record, close China-watchers have described Xi as a person from whom it is difficult to secure anything easily.

Balanced perspectives have been presented both in the national and international media. While respecting China’s salience, India’s importance is also recognised. The “Nixon” flavour in Modi’s Right-wing persona has invested him with the credibility of clinching a border settlement, arguably a swap between Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh. (A spanner was ominously thrown in the works by an article in the pro-government Global Times accusing India of “mischief” in Arunachal Pradesh. A comment in one of our papers attributed it to exasperation with Modi’s successful forays into Chinese social media. But formally the Chinese maintained their composure. India also did well to professionally submit a demarche on the reported Chinese investment in a PoK infrastructural project. India also went the extra mile in keeping the Japanese out of the Malabar naval exercises in deference to Chinese sensitivities.)

On other issues the climate was more propitious with the Chinese Ambassador in Delhi optimistically disposed to addressing the bilateral trade imbalance, assuming China’s stability and financial options. Mutual easing of visa restrictions and business procedures can give an enormous fillip to tourism and trade. Even the South China Sea sticking point could be losing some of its bite given the rationale of reviving the Silk Route to reduce Chinese vulnerability in its Strait of Malacca choking point. Indian public opinion has so far viewed the Chinese trade initiative positively, rather than seeing it as a tactical manoeuvre to get out of the way of potentially powerful Indian naval obstruction in the sea-lanes which sustain its trade and energy requirements.

But like unpleasant events which cannot be avoided or human foibles which disturb the big picture, China’s ostensible Big Brother attitudes towards smaller states in South-East Asia, some of whom are India’s friends and trading partners, are lending credence to fears that the Dragon is restless. The latest actions include land filling to convert disputed reefs into islands with a view to incorporating them into the larger territorial aggregate it claims (contestably) is historically Chinese. India can also provide ancient scholarship to lay claims on “Indo-China”. If geographical proximity has to be the benchmark for the right to exploit the rich South China Sea, Japan has entitlements of a similar kind. Conversely, China cannot interlope so close to India’s north-western borders with an eye on a warm water port and subsequently the Persian Gulf.

If might is right India can exploit the “fifth generation” naval equipment on offer by the US, among other things, poised to augment our promising growth curve as a sea power, capable in the long run of containing China in alliance with Japan, Australia and the US. China had itself taken advantage of the erstwhile Soviet Union’s Cold War animosity towards the West, inter alia, to gain nuclear power legitimacy and become a member of the exclusive NPT. It has recently been the recipient of powerful Russian weaponry.

Global multipolarity is a reality today. But multi-centres of influence, attitudes and interests exist within nation-states as much as between them. Individual identity and conviction emerge out of the collective shadow with all-round progress and the onward march of the state may cease to enthuse those who feel adequate by themselves. Chinese millionaires have developed a craving for Western real estate. There could also be the paradox of small states with higher individual capability confronted with the military might and cumulative wealth of much larger political entities. They in turn could be marshalled for huge technologically-driven global business initiatives backed by commensurate military finesse. Proactive diplomacy is essential to avert looming collision courses.

India’s political catholicism brings both difference and disparity to the surface more transparently than others. Rights’ issues exercise the entire political spectrum with greater openness than most of the developing world. Sections of Chinese perceive clear-cut divisions between the elite and the ordinary person in India, but not so much the machinery for redressing them. China’s great pride in lifting its people out of poverty and illiteracy is sometimes clouded by the opprobrium of dictatorship and mass violence. Yet “a hundred schools of thought” contended in the most brilliant phase of Chinese philosophy. It may not be in anybody’s powers to curtail such a legacy entirely. The Great Helmsman himself had a reputation of “leading by following”. An arms race, for instance, could ensue. But statesmanship at the highest level can ensure that strong leaders rise above the commonplace to keep the world intact with the right blend of innovation and security. Deng’s prophesy that the 21st century would belong to India and China would ring truer if the art of the possible translated into the felicity of mutual understanding and recognition of the rights of other, particularly smaller, states. China has authored designs for holistic security and entitlement which could go awry with an inverse partiality in execution. Under the most favourable conditions the two countries could act as moderating influences on each other. With enlightened leadership and the right priorities India and China would have got going by now, whether or not the news reaches us at the ground level.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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