The South Asia Channel

Modi’s Chinese Checkers

Modi's China visit was a triumph of style over substance, but cultural diplomacy may produce a meaningful shift in the relationship.

XIAN, CHINA - MAY 14: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a meeting on May 14, 2015 in Xian, Shaanxi province, China. (Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon - Pool/Getty Images)
XIAN, CHINA - MAY 14: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a meeting on May 14, 2015 in Xian, Shaanxi province, China. (Photo by Kim Kyung-Hoon - Pool/Getty Images)

One year into Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, foreign policy has been a visible area of high-octane activity. Continuing with his patent style of high-profile “summit diplomacy,” Modi’s trip to China was symbolic of the stature of the bilateral relationship in the prime minister’s vision. His determined efforts to widen the ambit of economic and cultural engagement with China while outlining India’s concerns on strategic issues were reflected in his joint media address with President Xi Jinping on May 15, where Modi said the following:

“Our conversations were candid, constructive and friendly. We covered all issues, including those that trouble smooth development of our relations. I stressed the need for China to reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realizing full potential of our partnership. I suggested that China should take a strategic and long term view of our relations. I found the Chinese leadership responsive.”

The net result of this three day visit has been a set of non-controversial deliverables which give governments of both Asian giants enough to convince their people there has been a significant shift in the trajectory of the uneasy relationship. However, beyond the symbolism and grand gestures, very little has changed on the ground.

The Big Sell

Modi continued his push for his “Make in India” campaign, asking Chinese CEOs to tap into India’s vast business potential. He wrapped up his trip with $22 billion worth of deals being signed between Indian and Chinese firms. In an acknowledgement of the lopsided trade deficit between the two countries now standing at a staggering $40 billion in China’s favor, a task force will be set up to find ways to bridge the gap and solve market access issues for both sides. India and China signed 24 well-publicized agreements during Modi’s visit, including cooperation on Modi’s pet project of smart cities. The agreements also include Chinese help for high-speed trains and railway development in India and cooperation in space, ocean studies, minerals, broadcasting and tourism (with Modi announcing e-visas for Chinese nationals on arrival). The two nations also cleared hurdles for the long-planned consulates in Chennai and Chengdu—have all been well-publicized.

In an effort to gloss over the elephant in the room—the protracted boundary dispute—India and China decided to set up a hotline between the military headquarters of the two countries and continue high level exchanges of personnel. This has been translated to an increase in the number of meetings between border personnel and commanders in all sectors of the India-China border areas to avoid border flare ups. It was unrealistic to expect any breakthrough on the border issue, and the joint statement declarations hence have been on expected lines. India’s concerns over the trans-border river disputes were also discussed but not elaborated upon.

The big take away in terms of the global agenda was China’s reaffirmation to support India’s stand in the climate change negotiations later this year, in line with the differentiated responsibility principle adopted by the developing countries. But beyond the optics and joint declarations, a lot was also left unsaid.

Silence on Key Issues

While the Chinese leadership laid out the red carpet for Modi and both leaders were quick to emphasize cooperation to realize the Asian century, there was conspicuous silence on issues like China seeking India’s support for its “One Belt One Road Initiative, which seeks to counter the U.S. rebalancing strategy in the Asia-Pacific—where India is increasingly being looked upon to play a more proactive role by United States and its allies. The initiative is two-pronged: the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road (MSR). The SREB aims to link China, Central Asia, Russia and Europe; connecting China with the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea through Central Asia and West Asia; and connecting China with Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Indian Ocean. The 21st-century MSR will supplement this through ports and hubs from China’s coast to Europe through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean in one route, and from China’s coast through the South China Sea to the South Pacific in the other. The “OBOR” is projected to generate trade of $2.5 trillion over a decade.

Despite India being a co-founder with China of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB),   which is expected to largely fund China’s ambitious project, India has made no formal commitments on the same. Neither is India pushing for movement on the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor, which is important to China’s plans for carving alternate routes around the Straits of Malacca—its Achilles heel in case of a confrontation with the United States in terms of sheer trade volumes that China sends through.

For India, the red herring comes from China’s reassertion in South Asia and increasing presence in the Indian Ocean region. Apart from China’s all-weather friendship with Pakistan, the newly inked $46 billion energy and infrastructure agreements include the 3,000-km economic corridor linking China to Pakistan’s south-western Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea through Pakistan-administered Kashmir. This doubles the Chinese presence in Pakistan though a massive project of road, rail, and energy schemes, pipelines, and investment parks.

China is entering markets in South Asia more aggressively through both trade and investment, improving its linkages with South Asian states through treaties and bilateral cooperation. By deepening military engagements with states on India’s periphery, China has firmly entrenched itself in India’s backyard. India has been rattled by news of the docking of Chinese submarines in Sri Lanka as well as the enthusiastic interest expressed by the other South Asian nations (including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Nepal) in joining China’s OBOR initiative. While Modi has stressed that South Asia relations are not a zero-sum game in competing for influence with China, India is concerned about the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean region.

India’s containment and engagement strategy has hence seen it take up a stronger position on matters of regional co-operation in the Asia-Pacific, where China is seen as an aggressor, with a flurry of diplomatic posturing with major regional powers like the United States, Japan, and Australia to seek a balance. Modi’s emphasis on “Acting East” has seen a slew of diplomatic engagements, including his latest visit to Mongolia and South Korea right after his trip to China. These anxieties continue to trouble the relationship, and neither side was eager to address them during this meeting.

Modi’s Cultural Diplomacy at Play

However, the one area where Modi has carved a niche for his administration is his emphasis on cultural diplomacy, highlighting India’s civilizational links with the world. China was no exception, and the soft power prowess of both nations was at play with high optics. Leveraging his social media acumen, the Indian prime minister joined the Chinese version of twitter, Sina Weibo, and his “selfie” with  Chinese Premier Li Keqiang went viral on Chinese social media, with bloggers noting that it was the first ever “selfie” of the Chinese premier. Modi has also sought to use India’s Buddhist traditions to forge stronger bonds with China. Whether it was gifting a sapling of the revered Bodhi tree from India’s Bodh Gaya to the Xian city government or the grand yoga-Tai chi demonstration, which involved 400 young practitioners and garnered positive media coverage, the public diplomacy component of the visit was orchestrated to the last detail. As Modi observed, “An area of high priority for us is people-to-people contacts. Indians and Chinese don’t know each other well, much less understand each other. We have decided to take the relationship out of the narrow confines of governments in the national capitals to states, cities and our people.”

Achieving this would be the litmus test for Modi’s new approach to dealing with China and could be the real game-changer in the relationship.

PHOTO: Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool/Getty Images

Shruti Pandalai is a former television journalist specializing in foreign policy, media and national security issues, currently working with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a New Delhi-based think tank. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent views of the institute. Follow her on Twitter at @shrutipandalai. @shrutipandalai

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