China and the World, Talking Point

Not exactly a love triangle

Xi looks to repair relations in India. His main motivation? Japan

India's PM Modi and China's President Xi wave before their meeting in Ahmedabad

Passage to India: China's President Xi Jinping is greeted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Chinese names can be hard to pronounce, even if they are written in Pinyin. That said, an Indian newscaster made a pretty fundamental error during the visit of the Chinese president last week. Mistaking the “Xi” in Xi Jinping for Roman numerals, she referred to China’s leader as “Eleven Jinping” live on air.

The Indian state broadcaster Doordarshan later apologised – telling Reuters it was “an unpardonable mistake” and sacking the offending journalist – but the error highlighted a more serious point: knowledge about China within India is low, even amongst the educated classes.

The two nations may share a 4,000-kilometre border (much of it disputed) but there is surprisingly little knowledge on both sides about what lies beyond it. Indians feel a mixture of admiration and fear for the Chinese, especially in economic terms, but those emotions are based on very little information. Most Chinese, on the other hand, believe that India is “dirty” and “chaotic”. Only the most adventurous tourists travel there and many Chinese businesses have avoided the Indian economy too, preferring to look first at other markets.

But now it seems that Chinese President Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are keener to boost relations between two of Asia’s great powers.

The first stage of that revival came last week when Xi concluded his week-long tour of central and South Asia with a visit to India. The three-day trip, which took in Modi’s home state of Gujarat as well as New Delhi, was the first by a Chinese head of state in eight years.

The Indian Prime Minister soon made it clear how pleased he was to welcome Xi.

“I attach great importance and priority to our relations with China. We are two ancient civilisations with a long history of engagement. China is our largest neighbour, and India’s neighbourhood occupies a special place in my national development plans and foreign policy,” Modi said in a speech delivered on the first day of Xi’s trip.

The next day, addressing an audience at a think tank in New Delhi, Xi responded: “China and India have a combined population of over 2.5 billion. If we speak with one voice, the whole world will listen, and if we join hands, the whole world will pay attention.”

So why the shift?

For the past 10 years India has been ruled by the left-of-centre Congress Party and its allies. It largely lacked a cohesive China policy during this period and even appeared reluctant to engage with its undemocratic neighbour. Instead the narrative was more of China as an aggressor: a country intent on claiming huge chunks of India’s territory and an economy willing to flood the subcontinent with cheap, faulty goods.

Gujarat, run by Modi before he became prime minister in May, was one of the few regions to adopt a more positive attitude. During his thirteen-year stint as Gujarat’s boss, Modi attracted a big proportion of the Chinese investment made in India. Gujarat also enjoyed more rapid economic growth than many of its peers, earning itself a nickname as ‘the Guangdong of India’.

So perhaps it follows that Modi will try to replicate much of what he achieved in Gujarat at the national level. In short, his primary aim in reviving the dialogue with China is development. He wants help with bulking up India’s industrial base, and assistance with renewing its creaking infrastructure, most notably its British Raj-era railway network and possibly with building nuclear power plants too.

In addition Modi wants to cool mutual tension over disputed border areas. He also looks keen to work with China to help both countries increase their international standing and influence through the creation of institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank – which will be based in China, but headed by an Indian.

If a closer relationship means that China’s friendship with Pakistan weakens, that would be a bonus. For instance, the Indian media was quick to trumpet that Xi dropped the Pakistan leg of this recent trip because of instability there.

But what does China get out of closer relations?

China’s motives are a little more complicated.

Firstly, increased engagement with India fits neatly with Xi’s mission to boost Chinese influence across the region. And if relations thaw across the Himalayas, New Delhi is more likely to lend its support to Chinese initiatives such as the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route (see WiC253). Such schemes are important to China because they allow Beijing more say in the development of the region. (By contrast, countries that participate in the projects hope to see increased trade with China, as well as get loans to help them build infrastructure.)

Modi has already given his blessing to a related project, the Bangladesh-India-China-Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor. And although military strategists in New Delhi have expressed concerns about the Maritime Silk route, it seems that he may be mulling that too.

“India believes that reconnecting Asia is important for its collective prosperity,” he said in his speech.

There are other reasons for getting New Delhi on side and they include Beijing’s concerns that India could become part of a coalition of democratic nations looking to ‘contain’ a rising China.

Under the Bush administration Washington was keen to develop India as a counterbalance to Chinese power. Japan has always maintained high levels of investment in India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan too. Its Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has even spoken of creating an “Asian Security Diamond” stretching from India to Australia and Hawaii “to protect the maritime commons of the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific”. It’s not hard to guess that China is the target of this Abe initiative.

Tellingly, Modi made his first foreign visit this month and it was to Tokyo. Abe bear hugged him on his arrival and reporters were informed that Modi was one of only three people that Abe follows on Twitter. To sweeten ties Tokyo promised $34 billion of foreign direct investment within five years, and discussed deepening military ties, including via the sale of Japanese aircraft to the Indian navy.

“From this day on, Prime Minister Modi and I will work hand-in-hand to dramatically strengthen relations in every field and elevate ties to a special, strategic global partnership,” Abe pledged.

Modi responded to these overtures: “We intend to give a new thrust and direction to our defence cooperation, including collaboration in defence technology and equipment, given our shared interest in peace and stability and maritime security. The 21st century belongs to Asia… but how the 21st century will be depends on how strong and progressive India-Japan ties are.”

In a veiled attack on China, reported Reuters, Modi also criticised the expansionist mood of countries that have encroached on the seas and territories of others.

Modi is in a good position to play China and Japan off against each other and win concessions from these increasingly antagonistic East Asian rivals.

Arguably India has never mattered more, from the perspective of the Asian balance of power. A poll earlier this month by the China Daily found that 53.4% of Chinese respondents envisage a military conflict with Japan, and one fifth said that it could happen within “a few years”. In a parallel poll in Japan, 29% said they could foresee military confrontation.

Thus one reason for China to cosy up to India is to dissuade its neighbour against any deeper alliance with Japan. Chinese military strategists are clearly concerned at the idea of being ‘encircled’ by Japan and India, in much the same way that the German General Staff worried about France and Russia encircling their country in 1914.

How did Xi’s charm offensive go?

As we have seen in the 18 months since he became president, Xi and his wife are much savvier ambassadors for their country than most of their predecessors.

On this trip the couple won points by flying straight to Gujarat to celebrate Modi’s 64th birthday. The India media was also impressed with Xi’s donning a Nehru style-waistcoat. And China’s pledge to invest $20 billion in business parks and infrastructure went down well too.

But despite the smiles and handshakes, the trip has been overshadowed by two incidents in disputed border territory about 400 miles north of Delhi. The two “incursions”, as the Indian media is calling them, began when Chinese personnel crossed India’s self-defined Line of Actual Control (LAC) and set up camps. About 1,800 Indo-Tibetan border police – the agency that guards that part of the border – is now facing off against some 800 PLA troops, The Times of India reported this week. New Delhi has reacted by cancelling a Sino-Indian media forum in the capital and delaying the Indian Army chief’s planned trip to Bhutan.

Chinese officials then made a statement explaining that the two countries have different understandings of how the border and LAC are defined. Thus Chinese troops believe themselves to be inside China. Previously, the Modi government has said that it wants to create a clearly defined border through the ambiguous territory. Chinese leaders said they wanted to hold concrete talks on the issue too, but talks have yet to take place.

Analysts say discussions have stalled because China is unwilling to stop a road-building programme up to the LAC and India refuses to demolish structures built in the area that shelter troops.

Several so-called ‘flag session’ meetings between Indian commanders and their Chinese counterparts have taken place without any results. Modi also raised the issue with Xi during their meeting, according to several Indian sources.

Is China keener on forging better relations than India is?

Based purely on media coverage it would seem so.

Of course it is not entirely fair to compare China’s state-controlled press with India’s more opinionated Fourth Estate.

Even allowing for that, Indian reaction to the latest Chinese overtures were muted.

Maybe they had hoped to get more than the $20 billion of investment pledged thus far. Japan promised more a few weeks before, of course. Or maybe the border standoff loomed too large.

“In the euphoria over the potential economic and diplomatic gains from the visit of the Chinese president, the nagging problem at Demchok and Chumar remained inexplicable to most casual observers. The games being played… have long gone on and ‘tolerance for ambiguity’ has its limits,” warned an editorial in the Indian Express.

Another piece (titled “High on expectations, low on delivery” in the Hindustan Times) bemoaned that the most pressing issues between the two nations had been parked for the time being.

“The many agreements that appear not to have been signed during this visit should worry those who expected the Xi trip to set the template for the future,” the newspaper said, citing disputes over rivers and water rights, as well as disagreements over territory in Kashmir and the eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as South Tibet.

On the economic front there was also pessimism about how India was going to be able to lure more Chinese investment. Few of India’s states have the combination of high-quality governance, physical infrastructure and clarity of economic purpose, including a friendly investment climate, required to attract global capital, the Hindustan Times concluded.

Tansen Sen, a professor of Asian History at the University of New York, told the Indian Express that India also needs more policymakers who understand China better.

“In the absence of competent translators, analysts and innovative policies, Indian governments since the 1962 war have been only reactive to steps taken by China, always trying to catch up to its neighbour without comparable dedication, resources or skills,” he lamented.

Sen pointed out that several of the documents prepared by Modi’s office for Xi’s visit were marred by Chinese typos, while an official transcript on the prime minister’s website even called the Chinese president “Xi Zinping”.

More embarrasingly, maps in documents related to establishing ‘Sister Province’ relations between Guangdong in China and India’s Gujarat were revealed to outline Aksai Chin (which India claims as part of Jammu and Kashmir) as Chinese territory.

“It was like a slap in the face of the country,” complained Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi, adding that incursions during the summit were unacceptable “for the sovereignty, ethos and foreign policy of the country”.

It was time for Modi to “walk the talk” on national security, Singhvi insisted.

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