Building bridges

Print edition : June 12, 2015

President Xi Jinping (right) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Dacien Buddhist Temple in Xian, Shaanxi province, on May 14. Photo: REUTERS/CHINA DAILY

Modi with business leaders at the India-China Business Forum in Shanghai. Photo: Shahbaz Khan /PTI

Modi taking a selfie with his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing on May 15. Photo: Shahbaz Khan/PTI

The selfie. “Taken a selfie! Thank you Premier Li.”, Modi posted in his Chinese microblog Weibo account. Photo: PTI

At the Terracota Warriors Museum in Xian. Photo: AFP/PIB HANDOUT

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China did not produce any bilateral big-ticket announcements, but this absence was made up for by unprecedented moves to establish a human connect between the two countries in areas of common interest.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s skilfully choreographed visit has struck a chord in China, especially with the country’s cyber-active youth. Combining carefully crafted rhetoric with a demonstration that he belonged to the digital age, which included a standout selfie with Prime Minister Li Keqiang, Modi has, arguably, managed to establish a connect, unrivalled among Indian leaders, with the people of China. Comparisons of the visit may be drawn with Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 journey, etched in public memory by the late Prime Minister’s lengthy, emblematic handshake with Deng Xiaoping.

The jury is out on the legacy of the Modi visit. Will it become a milestone in fulfilling the late Deng’s prophecy of a China-India bond premising an Asian century? Or will it end up as a footnote in history—a passing fashion statement from a new India that knew how to sprint under the commercial arc lights but was unable to strategise a marathon? As the dust settles on the high-octane visit, its lasting legacy may lie outside the headline-grabbing optics.

On the morning of May 15, as the busload of personnel of the Chinese military band arrived ahead of the ceremonial for Modi, something else was happening a few hundred metres away. A group of unheralded businessmen from Gujarat and elsewhere were getting themselves awkwardly photographed on the steps of the imposing Great Hall of the People, the seat of Chinese power. They had arrived for the launch of the India-China Forum of State and Provincial Leaders, a less reported but highly significant event of the visit.

In his address to the group, which also included the Chief Ministers of Maharashtra and Gujarat, Modi said: “A number of decisions can be taken quickly by the State governments. These interactions also make the State governments more sensitive and aware of the international dynamics and requirements.”

By establishing the forum, a new platform has been created to institutionalise a linkage between India’s States and China’s provinces. The people-to-people connect set up by the forum has been buttressed by additional points of contact. Aurangabad and Dunhuang, Chennai and Chongqing, and Hyderabad and Qingdao have been linked as sister cities. New consulates will be opened in Chennai and Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province.

It is likely that the multilayered connect between people outside both Lutyens’ Delhi and Beijing will play a major, if not decisive, role in defining the future of Sino-Indian ties. In the end, the unglamorous pictures that were taken on the steps of the Great Hall, announcing the injection of a subaltern dynamic into the Sino-Indian equation, may have as much lasting symbolic value as the much-celebrated selfie of the two Prime Ministers at Beijing’s iconic Temple of Heaven.

Modi’s visit should also be remembered for the unprecedented deployment of “soft power” to achieve political goals, where social media, the Hindi film industry and yoga were leveraged to reach out to ordinary Chinese citizens.

Ahead of his visit, Modi made heads turn in China by his surprising entry into Sina Weibo, China’s adaptation of Twitter, known for its largely no-holds-barred and often caustic postings. Mostly cheers and not insignificant jeers, mainly in reference to the status of Arunachal Pradesh, greeted Modi on Weibo.

In parallel, three days before the Prime Minister’s arrival in Xian on May 14, the film actor Aamir Khan landed in Beijing on his maiden visit to China for the commercial release of his blockbuster film PK in Chinese. The other makers of the film, Raju Hirani and Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who had also visited Beijing earlier, were confident that PK would do just as well as 3 Idiots, their earlier offering which had struck a chord with young Chinese audiences.

The Indian and the Chinese film industries have also come together in celebration of the Chinese monk and Buddhist scholar Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang, 602-664), who spent 17 years in India and played a major role in the spread of Buddhism in China. India’s Eros group and China Film Group are collaborating on the making of the film, which is to feature the Chinese actor Huang Xiaoming, along with an Indian star cast. Already, a movie titled Kung Fu Yoga featuring the Hollywood star Jackie Chan is being made under the joint production. That connects with Wushu, the collective name for a cornucopia of martial arts developed in China, which continues to grab the attention of China’s youth.

Buddhist heritage

In a country that is undergoing a cultural renaissance with Buddhism at its core, Modi and President Xi Jinping have leveraged the memory of Xuanzang as the mascot of India and China’s common Buddhist heritage. Pursuing the cultural script, the Prime Minister, accompanied by President Xi, visited the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, the emblem of China’s umbilical ties with India, a few hours after Modi’s arrival in Xian. Later historians may view the pagoda, dedicated to Xuanzang, as the icon heralding the revival of Sino-Indian ties. The visit, which showed China and India had copious reserves of soft power, set the tone for Modi’s extended talks with Xi later in the evening.

Modi’s visit confirmed that the China-India border dispute was no longer the defining feature of the relationship. Instead, the focus would remain on confidence-building measures to ensure that the borders remain calm and do not distract from the growing ties between the two countries. The omnibus communique of May 15, which emerged after the talks, said a hotline would be established between the two army headquarters and added that additional points would be opened along the frontiers to enable local border commanders to hold crisis-management meetings. The annual exchange of visits between officials of the two military headquarters and neighbouring military commands would continue. During the talks, Modi “reiterated the importance of clarification of the Line of Actual Control (LAC)”.

Indian officials clarified that China’s differences with its neighbours in the South China Sea were not discussed—a position that is bound to draw the attention of some countries of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) bloc and Japan.

The joint statement made it amply clear that outer space and nuclear energy were emerging as new areas for collaboration. A Space Cooperation Mechanism would steer a five-year “outline” for partnership, which would also cover lunar and deep-space exploration between the Indian Space research Organisation (ISRO) and the China National Space Administration. The two sides would engage in peaceful use of nuclear energy, a decision that led to a conversation on China’s stance towards India within the ambit of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

The announcements of the economic track have been equally impressive. As many as 21 agreements were signed between Indian and Chinese firms, worth $22 billion, at the India-China Business Forum held in Shanghai. Hopefully, this will help spur Modi’s “Make in India” campaign centred on firing advanced manufacturing. Ahead of the Shanghai visit, a diplomat told Frontline: “We are looking for Chinese support in skill development, either in railways or in training of Indian workers who can then have the know-how to handle the state-of-the-art equipment that would be used within the ‘Make in India’ framework.” India is also looking for a major Chinese contribution in clean energy to help fulfil its target of 100,000 MWs of renewable energy by 2022.

China Daily, a newspaper known as the authentic voice of the Chinese government, has pointed out that apart from collaborating in infrastructure on account of being founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), joint ventures by the two countries in Africa, Latin America and West Asia have emerged as an exciting possibility. “In Africa, Indian businessmen have done exceptionally well. They could help Chinese companies that have plans for the continent,” says Liu Jinsong, Deputy Director General in the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Renewable energy

The daily stressed that on clean energy “the two countries should deepen their cooperation in new energy, such as wind power and solar power, while exploring ways to work together in the traditional energy sector”. “Renewable energy is a big ticket item on the visit,” a diplomat told this correspondent. With Trina Solar and Yingli Green among the companies at the forefront, China has emerged as the world’s largest investor in renewable energy.

Prior to Modi’s arrival, Sun Edison of the United States and the Indian industrialist Gautam Adani announced a $4-billion venture to make solar panels in Gujarat. “There is huge scope for bilateral cooperation in the service sector, too, from banking, securities and insurance to telecommunications and postal services,” says the China Daily write-up. “China is good at three areas such as high speed railway, nuclear power stations and electricity facilities,” Liu Jinsong observed. While Prime Minister Modi’s high-profile visit has been widely welcomed in China, some red flags have nevertheless been raised in influential quarters, regarding the strategic trajectory of India’s ties with the West.

People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese government, posted an editorial that first appeared in Global Times. China’s authoritative newspaper of record points out that as Modi’s visit made headlines, “suspicions from the Western world soon poured in, saying the surface friendliness cannot cover the fact that Sino-Indian relations have irreconcilable maladies”. It added: “It is obvious that the Western elite don’t want to see India and China drawing closer to each other because it will confront their vision for Asia’s future. As rising powers in this region, China and India, as partners or rivals, will make a huge difference to the geopolitical interests of the West.”

Analysts say there is an apprehension in China that under the cover of freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, India is being drawn into a China-containment strategy pursued by the United States and its core allies, Japan and Australia.

People’s Daily counselled that instead of involving a third party, India should address its concerns directly with China. “The fundamental interests of China and India require peace, goodwill and cooperation. No side should look at the other with contempt or arrogance, and their problems should be addressed between the two with no need to introduce a third party.”

Corroborating this view, highly placed sources told Frontline that during the May 14 talks with Xi Jinping in Xian, a meeting that took place in a remarkably relaxed atmosphere, the Chinese side encouraged India to address its concerns directly with Beijing.

Keen to get India on board its “belt and road” initiative—a proposal to integrate the economies of Eurasia through massive infrastructural development—President Xi proposed that areas of common interest could be found in India’s “Act East” policy and the belt and road initiative. The President said the two countries could strengthen communication on the belt and road within the framework of the AIIB. Chinese commentators have been suggesting that India could take its cue from Russia, whose Eurasian Economic Union (EAEC) proposal is being harmonised with the “belt and road” initiative. Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Xi recently signed a joint statement to link the two initiatives.

The Indian side has so far been lukewarm to the belt and road proposal. It views its participation in the proposed Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor not as a part of the belt and road but as a stand-alone regional project that predates Beijing’s Silk Road plans.

“The ‘one belt-one road’ is a Chinese initiative. It is a national initiative of a country. If any country wants the other country to discuss to collaborate on its national initiative, it is for that country to initiate it. And we are open to discussing this with the Chinese. We have not had a detailed, structured discussion on ‘one belt-one road’,” said Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar during an interaction with the media.

A commentary in Xinhua, China’s news agency, summed up the potential of the relationship, which while bereft of major big-ticket announcements has, for the first time, established an unprecedented human connect between the two countries: “As two neighbours that enjoy growing influence in both Asia and the world, China and India may usher in an Asian century if they can closely dock with each other’ s development strategies and control disputes.”

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