File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Hyderabad House in New Delhi | Photo: Graham Crouch | Bloomberg
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For the next 24 hours, all eyes in India will be on Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he shows off the charms of the Pallava dynasty in Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, from approximately 1,300 years ago to his great Asian rival, Chinese President Xi Jinping.

It was at the court of the Pallava King Narasimhavarman 1 in Kanchipuram – the great centre of silk weaving that is falling apart because of cheaper silk yarn from China – that the peripatetic Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang visited in the 7th century AD. In the following decades, seafarers from both sides traversed the Indian Ocean freely and fearlessly; in the 15th century, the great Chinese Muslim mariner Zhang He visited Calicut and carried out expeditions in the Western Indian Ocean no less than seven times.

Why Mamallapuram

But since Modi never does anything without a careful second thought, picking the Mamallapuram venue and the photo-opportunities they guaranteed was as important as the content of the second informal summit with Xi.

Fact is, Tamil Nadu is one of the few states in the country that has so far not bowed to the will of Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Hieun Tsang, the Chinese traveller, after all spent several years studying at the Nalanda University before returning home – but Bihar is already a BJP ally, even if Chief Minister Nitish Kumar isn’t fully comfortable with the PM.

It had to be Mamallapuram – or Mahabalipuram, as the British later called it. DMK leader M.K. Stalin has welcomed Xi’s visit, but it is unlikely he had much choice in the matter. On the other hand, none other than Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale – he was ambassador in China when the Doklam imbroglio took place in mid-2017 and helped broker a deal – flew down to Chennai and Mamallapuram last week to see, first-hand, that all loose ends had been properly tied up.

Like Wuhan – that gorgeous Chinese city in Hubei province ocated on the Yangtze and Han rivers, on the banks of which Modi and Xi took a much-photographed stroll and drank tea from porcelain cups – Mamallapuram affords a great spectacle. Also, similar to the Wuhan summit, a joint statement from Mamallapuram is not expected, because this too is an informal summit where two leaders are meant to be chatting each other up in private.


Also read: India & China pose no threat to each other, says Chinese envoy ahead of Modi-Xi summit


Not showing cards to China

But make no mistake that this is one of Modi’s most important foreign policy encounters. The PM has made foreign policy a key ingredient of his incredible success as a leader. He has just returned from a successful visit to the US, whose President Donald Trump is willing to give him considerable leeway on handling Kashmir.

Certainly, Trump’s backing of Modi will feed into the meeting with Xi. The Chinese president is having a bad quarrel with the Americans over trade; Trump has slashed cheap, Chinese imports and isn’t willing to give in. Xi will also see that Modi has managed to overturn the politics in the Indian Ocean, with friendlier government in the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

But what is most interesting is India’s management of China in recent times. As the Chinese have fumed and fretted over Kashmir, and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has run to his all-weather ally (the phrase that both sides like to use is, “higher than mountains, deeper than the ocean, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey”) in Beijing every time he feels the pinch from Modi – only 48 hours ago, he was the chief guest at a horticulture show in Beijing – the Indian PM has held his nerve.

He hasn’t allowed the Chinese, not once, to see that he is upset with them taking the lead at the UN Security Council and demanding consultations on China. Or that its joint statement with Pakistan two days ago said that Xi would “closely look” at what is happening in Kashmir.

President Xi knows that Modi knows and so does the rest of the world that human rights violations in Xinjiang and Tibet have been going on for decades; ironically, Modi has been accused of taking a page out of Xi’s book by discarding the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and allowing outsiders to buy land in the soon-to-be Union Territory.


Also read: BJP govt needs a long view on economy, quick fixes just result in a sugar high


It’s the economy, silly

Kashmir is hardly going to be a conversation starter. Nor is Pakistan. What Modi is likely to talk about is the ballooning trade deficit between the two countries, although it isn’t clear what Xi will say in response.

If he shrugs his shoulders and points out, as Chinese officials have done so far, that India must learn to compete with the rest of the world that comes to China, then the message is clear – Xi doesn’t want to make any exceptions for the other big Asian power.

This David-Goliath encounter on India’s Coromandel coast is especially interesting because Modi is using economic weakness as a lever to stand eyeball-to-eyeball with President Xi.

China’s per capita GDP at $10,150 is four times larger than India’s at $2,200. Especially in the wake of experiments like demonetisaion and GST, which sound like a latter-day version of the idiosyncratic Cultural Revolution that destroyed China’s GDP in the mid-1960s, India’s growth rate is continuing to fall.

And yet, Modi is employing all his resources to meet Xi as equals. He is the leader of a democratic nation, while Xi has named himself “President for life” – in itself a sign of insecurity.

There is virtually no comparison between the economic strength of the two countries today. That’s why there will be no tango between the dragon and the elephant, China and India, in Mamallapuram, because unequal leaders don’t tango. They size each other up.

That’s what the next 24 hours are going to look like.

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17 Comments Share Your Views

17 COMMENTS

  1. Quad is xian alliance to fool India and Japan. West is very smart, they fund naxals, xian missionaries to de-stablize India.

  2. Xi Jinping is no match to Modi in politics. Modi makes mistakes only once. The image of India would have been entirely different if it had been a permanent member of UN Security council. Obviously blame goes to Nehru and Congress for letting India down. Librandus will die hating Modi. That’s their destiny. Their role to develop India has been negative. Under Modi’s leadership India will soon catch up with China. However, by then all Indian librandus would vanish.

  3. Since there is no dearth of scholars and foreign policy consultants – genuine and self-appointed – let me also cite one scholar Frank Pieke (professor and China expert), who states, amongst many other things: “Despite its current growth, wealth and power, it is not China’s destiny to rule [even if it is a major power]…looking at the world from Chinese perspectives, will facilitate the realisation that the emerging world order is fraught with uncertainty rather than the straightforward passing of the baton into Chinese hands.” (Pieke, 2016: 144. Knowing China: A 21st Century Guide. Cambridge University Press).

    And now to those self-appointed foreign policy experts who keep commenting on these articles without taking a two-sided view or conveniently ignoring them to highlight their own wisdom (or perhaps due to lack of self-esteem or scholarly aptitude), it would be prudent to acknowledge that it is not just India that should take the peaceful route to achieve so called “greatness”, it is also in China’s interest to do that. And Xi knows it.

  4. Another lesson in ancient Indian history, geography, current geo-politics, use of metaphors, Modi bashing etc etc from Jyoti!! It is indeed brain numbing or hilarious ( as one would like to take it) to read her article and make sense out of it. Her main conclusion is that Modi and Xi will not tango but they will size up each other! But Jyoti, who said there were meeting to tango? And they already have sized each other and hence, Modi has done what he has to do in Kashmir. If Xi wants to have closer look at Kashmir, he can have it but nothing on the ground changes, even if Trump is not happy with Modi tomorrow. 99% of the article contains known facts. I hope someone in ThePrint does some sanity check before allowing such articles to be published. Check how nuanced Shekhar talks or writes, though he has his angularities. which come up once in a while. With trade deficit of USD 60+ billion every year, India is effectively financing CPEC and help export from other countries like Pakistan to China at our cost and suffering from many anti -India actions like stalling entry into NSG, refusal to import pharma and services from India etc. By making Pakistan its client state, we have in effect , border with China from west to north to east. It is also sailing in Indian Ocean beyond and close up in Sri Lanka, Bangla Desh, Myanmar and also, Pakistan. India needs to time and a strategic direction to size up with China. But we need to talk and continue talking and seek areas of convergence and not convert disagreements into disputes. This format of meeting, for which credit must go to Modi, is an appropriate one for China, We have at least managed to control new issues converting into disputes and kept situation at strategic level under control since Dokhlam.

    • Some people believe that our trade deficit of $ 60 billion means we are “ financing “ China or the CPEC. Not strictly correct. We buy stuff from China – the whole world does – because their products are competitive. If we don’t, someone else will. Conversely, if we don’t import from Chins, we will buy things from some other country, or manufacture them locally, at a higher cost to consumers. There is no philanthropy involved in foreign trade.

      • Well, you have made an interesting point by stating “There is no philanthropy involved in foreign trade.” You are right. However, trade is a strategic instrument. If the money earned from trade by a China is adding to its power against India, then India should use trade as a strategic weapon. In protecting strategic interests, China and Pakistan will have no qualms about using any means, and we must recognise that. However, there must be a multi-pronged approach to containing China. Anyone who views China with rose-tinted glasses, getting mesmerised by its successes but ignoring its excesses and weaknesses, is only short on strategic understanding. Having said that, I fully agree with Congress that the Indian PM should have been vocal about Hong Kong. There is no need to be tactical on such issues, OR else the result might be what happened subsequent to ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai’.

          • Thanks. For some reason I have expectations that one day you would present a balanced view. You are too harsh on India and it’s potential, but sweeping in your positive assessment of viewpoints and personalities close to your heart. Strategy is a hard discipline; it should not be held hostage to biased opinions or uni-dimensional perspectives. Yes, you have a passion for foreign relations, and therefore, I suggest humbly, that you open your mind to multiple perspectives. The strength of your arguments will then match the strength of your articulation.

    • I had great hope from ThePrint that Shekhar Gupta would not allow propaganda against the government and promote positive criticism for improvements and faster development of India. But I have proved wrong. ThePrint has turned out to be giving more space to anti government and anti India journalists. It has now become a propaganda media promoting anti India forces and giving shelter to discredited journalists.

  5. Winter was normally the best time of the year to visit Delhi. No longer, with air quality so poor. MEA should think of a more congenial venue to receive foreign leaders when they wish to visit. Mrs. Gandhi had organised CHOGM in Goa in 1982.

  6. Dr Tanvi Madan and others have pointed out that the West and the rest of the world have always held India to a higher standard as a plural democracy than China, a moral advantage we should strive to retain. 2. On the economy, there is no comparison. The 4.5 : 1 disparity becomes more difficult to overcome when both countries are growing at roughly the same 5 – 6 %. While India has focused on its geopolitical rivalry with China, we have not always appreciated the fact that forty years of explosive growth have lifted the dragon to America’s league. 3. May the Summit succeed. India needs to forge a more peaceful external environment to essay its own trek to greatness.

    • Unlike China, India keeps looking for approval from the West. About time that India stops behaving like a supplicant of the West. It’s acts need to befit its size. For all it’s pretensions (of being a great power), India still behaves like a prickly small country, constantly looking over its shoulder.

      • I totally agree with you. Not just of the political leaders, but also of many of its citizens, mostly those who care for Western media’s every word as God’s word. No need to punch above its weight, but no need to punch below it either. How to deal with a bully (in this case China)? Talk straight. Look in the eye. How to deal with a slimy minnow (in this case Pakis)? Ignore. Play a bigger strategic game. Quad is one of the elements of that game.

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