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#4668, 20 September 2014

India-China Relations

Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping: Strong Leaders, Hard Issues
D Suba Chandran
Director, IPCS

The visit of the Chinese President Xi Jinping to India is over. A series of bilateral agreements and a new bonhomie at the highest level between Jinping and Modi are the highlights, along with border clashes in Ladakh during the same time.

What is the big picture? Is the bilateral relation now poised to take off and realise an Asian Century? Will the two leaders, be able to break the border barrier, reduce the existing reluctance in their Establishments and the red tape to take the bilateral relations ahead?

Strong Personal Chemistry and its Fallout on India-China Relations
On the positive side, the biggest outcome of the visit is the strong personal chemistry between Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi. 

Both are strong leaders in their own countries. The latest essay in the Economist (The Rise and Rise of Xi Jinping: Xi who must be obeyed) and multiple commentaries elsewhere would highlight the political strength and popularity that the Chinese President has within his own country. Similarly, within India, Narendra Modi is a strong political leader, both within his own party, and as the leader of Parliament. Both leaders are assertive and willing to take bold decisions, that the previous leaders were either not confident of or afraid to.

In this context, the personal chemistry between the two leaders has a far reaching impact, irrespective of the number of agreements that were signed and the border crisis that became the focal point in the Indian media. Modi received Jinping in Gujarat – his home state, and went beyond the protocol in hosting the Chinese President along the Sabarmati river. On his part, Jinping and his wife, extremely receptive and went along; the traditional swing is likely to coin a new phrase – Jhula Diplomacy!

The Chinese President has already returned the favour, by inviting Modi to visit his hometown – Xi’an. Personal chemistry and the nature of their political hold in their own countries will help Modi and Jinping to take the bilateral relations ahead. 

12 Agreements and $ 20 Billion: Will Quantity make Quality, in the long-term?
Twelve agreements have been signed between the two countries during Jinping’s visit. And China has committed to invest USD 20 billion in the next five years. In terms of numbers, how significant are the above?

There was an expectation that China would commit to investing close to USD 100 billion; perhaps, China is cautious. Who would not, given the Indian history of “Red Tape” to foreign investors. One of the biggest dis-service to the Indian nation by the previous government in the last years have been to systematically break the enthusiasm of foreign investors; from Japan, South Korea to Singapore, India had become a horror story with its bureaucratic hurdled and omnipresent corruption in the system in the investment sectors. Foreign investors, repeatedly talk about the predatory nature of the existing system, which has become the single most obstacle to attract foreign investment. Modi’s “Red Carpet” approach towards the investors should change this perception, and attract larger investment from elsewhere. 

The sister cities compact, has a larger impact. The number of flights every day between different cities of China and India will soon be more than the number of flights between India and its neighbours put together. And this number means the growing movement between the two countries (more for business reasons, than tourist). The MoU on Kailash Mansarovar Yatra via Nathu La in Sikkim has a larger political and psychological meaning. Instead of the existing tough journey via Lipulekh La in Uttarakhand, the Sikkim route is easy to travel. Yatris could easily reach Bagdogra in West Bengal, travel to Gangtok and then to Nathu La by road. The road infrastructure has been improved substantially and according to the local population in Sikkim, the road from Nathu La into Tibet is even better. This has a larger political meaning to India, China, Tibet and Sikkim as well.

Among the many other agreements, the cooperation on Railways and Chinese interest to strengthen the rail network would take India far. Given the nature of revolution in rail within China (one should travel within China and see the multiple railway stations and elevated platforms) to understand the nature of changes within the Chinese rail network. India needs this crucial input in better its ailing railway infrastructure. 

Hard Issues: MSR, Border Issue and the Big Picture
The challenge however is on how the two leaders resolve the problem of history, and its future “routes” both over land and across the oceans. As could be noticed during the summit, developments along the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh sector did affect the summit environment. The Maritime Silk Route (MSR) and the growing Chinese footprints in Sri Lanka and Maldives is a foreign policy concern for India.

Will the two leaders be able to convert their personal chemistry to ensure a win-win position on the above issues, and take the bilateral relations ahead? True as Jinping said, both countries have the numbers to make the world listen and pay attention, if they speak in one voice. Can they? Both countries are attempting to break the status quo and create a favourable international environment to achieve their national interests. Can they do it together?

The two leaders can. They have the maths. And the chemistry now.

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