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Modi & Xi don’t need to sign a dozen trade pacts to make second informal summit a success

The two popular leaders will have to seriously work towards assuring their constituencies that it is imperative to keep the region free of crises.

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The second informal summit between Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Mamallapuram comes in the backdrop of the ongoing US-China trade war and Washington’s strategy to contain Beijing’s not-so-peaceful global ascendancy.

Beijing is naturally looking for strong partners in the region, who also have considerable influence in the non-aligned world capitals. And, India best suits its purpose. There is also a genuine concern in China that the country needs to do much more than just line-up goodwill visits to India.

There is a general consensus on both sides, New Delhi and Beijing, that confrontation between the two economies would be counterproductive, affecting their growth.

The summit, which comes more than a year after the Wuhan meeting in April 2018, is therefore likely to lay the foundation for a long-term engagement between two ancient civilisations based on mutual understanding of security concerns and pave the way for lasting cooperation.

Also read: Modi-Xi summit can be a success, if only India and China can get Pakistan out of their mind

The pinpricks

In the last few years, China has been pursuing a strategic agenda to use Pakistan to seek an entry into the Indian Ocean region so that it can develop a viable sea route to the resource-rich Africa and Central Asia. India has strongly, and very legitimately, opposed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a part of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, because it crosses PoK.

Beijing has also registered a strong protest against Indian Army’s Him-Vijay military exercise in Arunachal Pradesh. In a meeting with foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale, Chinese vice foreign minister Luo Zhaohui expressed China’s displeasure – Beijing considers Arunachal as ‘southern Tibet’.

These pinpricks, however, did not jeopardise Modi and Xi’s second informal summit. At the same time, it would be foolhardy to assume that both the leaders would immediately get down to inking a dozen trade pacts during the summit.

Also read: Modi and Xi are unequal leaders who won’t tango in Mamallapuram but size each other up

India’s bargaining power

The Wuhan summit took place more than seven months after the armies of the two nuclear powers threw gravel at each other and were on the brink of a major military escalation in Doklam. At Wuhan, both Xi and Modi displayed exemplary understanding and effectively managed the de-escalation process.

The second summit, this time in the temple town of Mamallapuram, has also faced its share of roadblocks and hurdles. The annual meeting of special representatives from India and China on the border issue, scheduled last month, has been delayed. Incidentally, during the last border meeting in November 2018, the Chinese were reportedly unhappy and claimed that New Delhi was slow to react to their suggestions.

According to some in the Chinese diplomatic community, the Modi government’s inaction on the border issue is a result of New Delhi’s slow but sure movement towards the emerging Indo-Pacific architecture, which Beijing views as a new security arrangement. Some of them have written about ‘massive changes’ in India’s internal and external environment and New Delhi’s ‘great power’ aspirations. The Chinese call it Gaokaidizou (高开低走).

The ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event in Texas was keenly followed in Beijing. The Indo-Pacific initiative of the US and New Delhi’s active participation in Quad (comprising US, Japan, India, Australia) are seen as providing a big push to India’s bargaining power against China.

Also read: Boundary question only part of China-India relation, need to look beyond: Chinese envoy

Allaying apprehensions

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put his best diplomatic foot forward in convincing Beijing about New Delhi’s commitment to uphold the principle of continued engagement without compromising on India’s national interests, its regional priorities and welfare of the domestic industry.

China is bound to frown upon India’s defence cooperation with countries like the US and Japan and its strategic naval and military exercises, viewing them as an immediate threat to its influence in the region. But India strongly believes in pursuing the policy of strategic autonomy.

At the informal summit, Modi needs to allay the apprehensions of his guest and convince him about India’s legitimate right to engage with the US and other multilateral forums – without hurting friendly relations with Beijing.

The choice of the venue for the summit is significant. Mamallapuram, a Unesco heritage site, was once a thriving port city in the Pallava dynasty and shared close links with China. At a time when trade, commerce and industry determine the cumulative power of a country, India-China relations have entered a critical phase of cooperative engagement, which will have far-reaching consequences for both the countries as well as the region.

There are regional and global issues that need urgent attention and viable local solutions. The two popular leaders will have to seriously work towards assuring their constituencies that it is imperative to keep the region free of crises so that they can ensure bilateral peace and progress.

The author is a member of the National Executive Committee of the BJP and former editor of Organiser. Views are personal.

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  1. Chinese products are of the nature that they create no value by themselves. The real value is created by big brands in Europe, America and Japan, and this is the biggest shortcoming of the Chinese economic model (Pieke, 2016. Knowing China: A 21st Century Guide. Cambridge University Press).

  2. India’s economic strategy should be aligned to protect its geo-strategic interests unless China comes to a more moderate position vis-a-vis India and its neighbours. Collaborative counter-weight to China is important, and trade is a strategic and justifiable instrument for India.

  3. Chinese products sell all over the world because they offer value for money, and steadily improving quality, as had happened with Japan after WW II. The trade deficit is not easily bridged. However, both sides should identify goods and services where China can buy more. India should emphasise that growth in trade will become difficult till our deficit is redressed. Whatever India’s reservations over BRI, there are viable long gestation projects in India where China could be encouraged to invest. We should try not to let the baggage of the past weigh us down too much.

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