Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the BRICS summit last year. Photo: AFP
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the BRICS summit last year. Photo: AFP

China places great store on symbolism. The “Shanghai spirit” is often invoked to hail the historic Sino-Russian rapprochement in the mid-1990s, which subsequently blossomed into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a vehicle to carry forward the impulses of their détente.

This analogy would have occurred to India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval when Chinese leader Yang Jiechi, a member of China’s Politburo (who heads the Communist Party’s newly-created Central Leading Group on Foreign Affairs) chose to receive him at Shanghai last week for a meeting that could augur a potential Sino-Indian detente.

Doval and Yang apparently discussed an informal summit meeting between the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Word on the grapevine is that Modi may travel to China ahead of his scheduled visit to attend the summit meeting of the SCO in Qingdao on June 8-9.

Indeed, two visits to China by an Indian prime minister within the space of a month would signify a significant breakthrough in high-level India-China dialogue in the entire chronicle of the relationship.

‘Getting over past brawls’

Bilateral exchanges have become increased lately since the path-breaking visit to Beijing in February by India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, an ace “China hand” in India’s diplomatic inventory. The Chinese Communist Party newspaper Global Times wrote last week that Beijing saw Gokhale’s visit as “a full demonstration that New Delhi attaches great importance to its ties with Beijing… (and) indicated that India is resolute in adapting its China policy and getting over the past brawls to open up a new chapter in bilateral ties.”

The commentary, which coincided with Doval’s talks with Yang in Shanghai, noted: 

“Sino-Indian relations have presented a rosy development scenario recently, with new achievements in various areas thanks to the concerted effort of both nations. It seems that a new day has dawned for the two countries which were once at odds… The turn in China-India relations came as a result of common endeavor… The Indian government has achieved an important strategic consensus, making institutional preparations to recover its ties with China.

“India’s adjustment of its China policy is a return to its principle of strategic autonomy and the non-alignment policy. The change serves as the start of getting back on the healthy development track of its ties with China. Beijing-New Delhi ties are heading for more mature and stable development.”

Phenomenal transformation

Indeed, the atmosphere has phenomenally transformed. India’s foreign and defense ministers are due to travel to China next week in quick succession. Evidently, Delhi and Beijing are taking the road out of Doklam, where a dangerous seven-week face-off last summer between the two armies left a trail of anxiety.

Western analysts – and their camp followers in India – had been prophesying a showdown in Doklam and whipping up xenophobia in Delhi, but they will be disappointed. A quiet round of consultations in Delhi on April 6 between Gokhale and his visiting Chinese counterpart Vice-Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou “agreed to maintain high-level exchanges, carry out mechanism communication, expand practical cooperation and properly handle differences.”

Simply put, the two diplomats agreed on a matrix of constructive engagement to eliminate misperceptions over each side’s intentions. While in Delhi, Kong also called on Doval (in the run-up to the latter’s forthcoming talks with Yang in Shanghai).

For sure, the “sherpas” are hard at work to create the right ambiance for a summit meeting between Modi and Xi. The two countries held a new round of arms control talks in Beijing on April 10 in what the Chinese Ministry called “candid, practical and fruitful” discussions “exchanging in-depth views on issues of common concern including international security, arms control and non-proliferation.”

This confidence-building measure is timely, since apart from the nuclear dimension, the two countries have been beefing up forces on the disputed border.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson acknowledged these positive trends in remarks in Beijing on April 16, saying there has been “new progress” in China’s relations with India following “close interactions” at various levels “under the guidance of the leaders of the two countries.”

Clearly, Beijing has put the imprimatur of Xi on what is unfolding. Spokeswoman Hua Chunying concluded:

“China attaches great importance to its relations with India. We are ready to work with India to follow through on the important consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries and stick to the right direction of our bilateral relations. We will further accumulate positive energy and expand new areas for cooperation so as to move forward the sound and steady development of bilateral relations.”

Focus on economic cooperation

The focus of the two leaders is expected to be on stepping up economic cooperation. China views India as the last frontier in a bleak world scenario characterized by protectionism and anti-globalization. As for India, it places store on China as a potential driver of growth for its economy, especially job creation, which could be crucial to Modi’s prospects of winning a renewed mandate in the 2019 poll.

India’s hardline policies toward China have proved barren. Modi’s better instinct all along was to tap into China’s growth for galvanizing the Indian economy. Ironically, China, too, had placed high hopes on Modi’s rise, having known him and appreciated his realism and sense of priorities toward economic growth and development.   

The present turnaround underscores that Modi has marginalized the hardliners in the Indian camp, and more importantly, secured a green light from powerful Hindu nationalist forces who mentor the government. Modi has astutely weighed that regional and international politics demand a strengthening of India’s strategic autonomy.

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