Cover Story: India & China


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Modi played the indulgent host to perfection as he tried to bond with the visiting Chinese president Xi Jinping. Can the mutually suspicious Asian powers overcome the trust deficit?
The construction of facades to hide ramshackle slums and shabby colonies on the way to the Sabarmati Ashram from Ahmedabad’s Sardar Patel Airport was in full swing a few days ago. Cheerful sanitary workers of the Amdavad Municipal Corporation, thrilled by the prospect of a visit to their city by a leader advertised as the ‘world’s second-most powerful’, were busy clearing plastic waste and cow dung from traffic dividers. Huge banners welcoming Chinese president Xi Jinping in English, Gujarati and Chinese attracted a lot of interest. A few local residents near the city’s Hyatt hotel where Xi was to stay were asked to shift to their relatives’ home for a day or two over security reasons, but even they weren’t complaining much. Their small sacrifice was perhaps the best gift they had in mind for local boy Narendra Modi who, on his sixty-fourth birthday, hosted Xi in their city, before the Chinese Communist Party heavyweight left for Delhi on a three-day India tour.

“There was a sense of pride at the newfound recognition for Ahmedabad,” gushes a state official, calling it Amdavad. “After all, it is the Prime Minister’s home city. I don’t remember the last time we hosted such a global dignitary,” continues the official, who was happy to follow instructions to polish his shoes, tuck in his shirt and look immaculately dressed while Xi was in town.

Xi, born to communist parents in Beijing in the turbulent 1950s when Mao Zedong was consolidating power through land reforms and eliminating counter-revolutionaries in an impoverished China, cannot be a stranger to slums, but then, sweeping dirt under the carpet by banishing beggars and cordoning off heavy-traffic routes is par for the course when a tall leader comes visiting, especially when what Modi wants to do is to leave nothing to chance in leveraging the hostilities between China and Japan to maximise gains for New Delhi. The logic that runs deep among India’s mandarins is that since Japan— during Modi’s visit to Tokyo and other cities a few weeks ago—promised to invest $35 billion in the country through public and private funding over the next five years for various works, including the building of smart cities and cleanup of the Ganga, China, competitive to the core, can’t offer less. And the Chinese dole-out is crucial for Modi, who wants to use the funds to rapidly modernise the country and create highly skilled jobs as part of meeting poll promises.

Which explains why Modi spent many hours on his birthday with Xi—who wore an off-white khadi jacket gifted to him by Modi—and his dashing Chinese folk singer wife Peng Liyuan at the Sabarmati Ashram and at his showpiece Sabarmati Waterfront. Xi smiled genially as he watched Indian cultural dancers, took a break sitting on a traditional swing, and also tried his hand at a spinning wheel. Modi presented the Chinese leader a copy of the Bhagavad Gita in Chinese, along with some books on Gandhi. Clearly, Modi’s body language revealed it all: he was aching to build a personal relationship with Xi—something that he has done, with great success, with Japanese leader Shinzo Abe.


China, India’s biggest trading partner with annual two- way commerce of more than $65 billion, is looking forward to investing in Indian infrastructure and related segments. Michael Zhang, a Shanghai-based foreign policy analyst at China Market Research Group, a policy consultant, notes that India has a lot to gain through cooperation in infrastructure, including high-speed trains and industrial parks for car production, manufacture, etc. “Compared to Japan, China has advanced technology in these segments. India is going to gain more benefits from China’s help and China will enjoy a good return on investment because of the large market potential in India if both India and China can deepen economic cooperation,” he points out.

But, as with anything to do with China, concerns abound.

A section of Indian diplomats view Beijing’s efforts to invest huge sums of money in India as a deft move to buy its silence over China’s expansionist designs in the region. India has been anxious that China is building ports and other facilities throughout South Asia, employing what has been called a ‘string of pearls’ strategy, to militarily surround the country. Which is why the Chinese will never stop trying to woo countries with money, reasons Edward Luttwak, US military historian and author of The Rise of China Vs the Logic of Strategy, “Yes, money talks. The Chinese think India (like countries like Sri Lanka and other smaller nations in the Indian Ocean) can be easily bought. Huawei (a Chinese company which has been doing business in India for long) has convinced the Chinese authorities that Indian officials can be easily purchased,” he adds. Open couldn’t independently verify this claim.

Michael Kugelman, Senior Program Associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has no doubts about Modi’s well-meaning efforts to attract Chinese funds and get Beijing to address New Delhi’s trade imbalance concerns. He believes that on the economic diplomacy front, Modi has remained true to his initial intentions: to re-engage with India’s neighbours in a way that highlights the country’s desire for economic partnerships and more all- around diplomacy, while also portraying itself as a strong state internationally. “Yes, the Prime Minister is doing the tightrope balancing act. He established good ties with his neighbours, and the highlight, of course, was the invitation to his swearing-in to Pakistan president Nawaz Sharif. He was sensitive to China’s worries and didn’t invite the Dalai Lama for the swearing-in. There has been a lot of symbolism. Now, after rubbing shoulders with Japan—which he believes will add to India’s weight—he is looking at engagement with China,” says a senior foreign ministry official.


A US diplomat based out of Delhi avers that getting Chinese money for rebuilding the country’s creaking infrastructure in is not a bad idea. “India and China must trade aggressively, but empirical evidence shows that China can’t be trusted with military and border disputes, and such frictions will end up hurting commercial ties. It is a tough thing to manage that country where the belief in democracy and transparency are very low,” he argues.

Shanghai-based analyst Michael, too, concedes that India-China ties are problematic—to the extent that it is not easy for Modi to strike up a good working relationship with Xi as he did with Abe. Robert D Kaplan, who has argued in several of his books that the centre of world power has been quietly shifting from Europe to Asia and that the ‘greater Indian Ocean’, which stretches from the Red Sea to the South China Sea, is now on the global centre stage, in fact, doesn’t see anything strange or interesting about the bonhomie on display at the Sabarmati. “There is nothing new here. India and China are playing a great game of influence throughout the Indian Ocean’s maritime Silk Road. These tensions will be hidden somewhat when the Chinese leader visits India, for the leaders of both countries will try their best to put a positive public face on their relations.” China and the Gujarat government signed three MOUs on the first day of Xi’s visit alone.

China’s unpredictability over border disputes with India has been giving local authorities the jitters. More disquieting are its ‘non-transparent’ setting up of ports and infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. Xi’s suggestions of a “Twenty first century maritime Silk Route”, linking China to Europe through the seas, have sparked anxieties among the neighbours; Silk Route derives its name from the lucrative trade in Chinese silk that started before a few centuries before Christ and lasted several centuries.

The concept of a maritime Silk Route sounds luring. However, pundits feel the Chinese naval strategy and designs are misplaced and wily. The Chinese Navy prefers a two-ocean power, with multiple access routes between the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific to ease its dependence on the Strait of Malacca. In effect, it involves pushing back US and encircling India on the way to the Middle East and East Africa. Beijing’s hurry in signing maritime pacts with the likes of Mauritius, Maldives and Seychelles proves just that. “Both strategies are wrongheaded because China is quarrelling with most countries [like Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines] in between [the Silk Route], which all open their ports to US, Japan and India and close them to China,” explains Luttwak. He goes on, “The problem is that the Chinese confuse sea power [building ships, etcetera] with maritime power, which involves getting access to friendly ports.”


Behind the smiles, red-carpet blitzes and firm handshakes lurk deep suspicions.

Michael says that territorial dispute is a vexed one however hard one tries to hide it at high teas and ceremonial dinners. “As far as I know, just a few days ago, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj claimed that if China wanted the favour of India in One-China Policy, China must support One-India Policy, which [means] China should admit that Southern Tibet belongs to India. By no means would the Chinese government agree with the claim, and the sovereign rights in these regions,” he says. The last time India and China fought a war was way back in 1962, but skirmishes on the eastern border are common—China stakes claim to the state of Arunachal Pradesh and has maintained that residents of the Northeastern state didn’t require anything more than stapled visas to visit the Middle Kingdom.

“That problem [raised by Swaraj] would have a bad effect in bilateral ties. Maybe to Indian officials, it is not a big deal, but for the Chinese government, the territory is one of the biggest issues. So in my opinion, such claims by Swaraj and the previous Japan visit would influence Xi,” Michael adds. Beijing has always looked at India’s ties with Japan with scepticism, fearing that the two countries would work towards creating a military bloc as a counterweight. Modi, during his Japan visit, had made a veiled attack on China’s aggressive military posturing. “The world is divided into two camps. One camp believes in expansionist policies while the other believes in development. We have to decide whether the world should get caught in the grip of expansionist policies or we should lead it on the path of development and create opportunities that take it to greater heights,” he had said.

A Myanmar-based Indian diplomat, meanwhile, feels that Modi’s push to “leverage ties with Japan to extract investment promises from rival China would work”. But he emphasises that uncertainties would still persist.

Which is why Michael thinks it is really hard for Xi to form a close relationship with Modi in a short time. It cannot be like the one between Modi and Abe, he says.

True, the past four months have seen hectic diplomatic activity, especially to make Xi’s visit a great success. After Modi was sworn in, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was among the first foreign leaders to phone and congratulate him. Keqiang had visited India in March 2013 and the countries signed eight agreements at that time. The two had hit it off well, and to underline the importance of Indo-Chinese ties, the newly elected Indian Prime Minister told Keqiang that seventh-century Chinese scholar Hiuen Tsang had even visited his village Vadnagar in Gujarat. Besides, this time around, after choosing the venue of the Chinese President’s arrival himself, Modi had entrusted his close aide in the PMO, Arvind Kumar Sharma, to oversee the preparations for the high- profile visit. “The Prime Minister is extremely keen that India be showcased beyond Delhi,” says Syed Akbaruddin, spokesperson for the External Affairs Ministry. “We will be having many other such occasions where visitors from outside will be hosted in other places beyond Delhi,” he adds.


Building relationships amid heightening of hostilities along the border will not be easy though.

“The personal rapport between Modi and Abe can be traced back to seven years ago, when Abe was in his first term as Japan’s Prime Minister. At that time, Modi was shrouded in negative news about Muslims being attacked in Gujarat, and was rejected by many countries when he wanted to visit them. However, Modi succeeded in visiting Japan. Besides, Modi insisted on visiting Abe on his second tour to Japan in 2012, when Abe had stepped down as Prime Minister over a corruption scandal,” says the Shanghai foreign policy expert. India’s proposed deal with Japan to buy 15 Japanese amphibious US-2 aircraft as well as potential military cooperation with Vietnam, including joint exercises off of Haiphong, have piqued China. India and China don’t share ancient hostilities, and they have common interests being members of the BRIC bloc. Separated geographically by the Himalayas, their rivalries are new, but with China encroaching onto main sea lines of communication at a time in history when 90 per cent of all commercial goods travel inter-continentally by sea, India will find Chinese designs disconcerting.

For the moment though, amid photo-ops and razzmatazz, everything looks hunky-dory, giving the impression that ties between the two Asian economic powerhouses are getting warmer and warmer. Xi’s big- ticket announcements on his tour do offer rays of hope of greater cooperation between the world’s two fast-growing major economies, yet the huge gap between an unabashed democracy and a totalitarian regime with inviolable hierarchies remains un-bridged.

(With additional reporting by Kumar Anshuman)