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.
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.
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.
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.