Modi’s Surge to Break New Ground with China Is Fruitful

When someone is reluctant to own up the parentage of a newborn infant, there is a problem somewhere. While all evidence points to the meeting in Wuhan on April 27-28 between the Indian and Chinese leaderships as the fruition of an Indian initiative, Delhi hasn’t acknowledged it. It is possible to both exaggerate and underestimate the significance of what happened. 

A seminal event such as the Wuhan “informal” summit must rest on the firm foundation of national opinion. But the mainstream Indian narrative remains hostile toward China and, curiously, the ruling elite’s ‘core constituency’ identifies with it, too. There is no overt attempt by the government to moderate this narrative, leave alone nudge it toward a realistic, rational ground. In the cauldron of this narrative, primeval passions of envy, suspicion, fear and rivalry coalesced and are inseparable today. 

In this preposterous narrative, Delhi should negotiate with Beijing only from a position of strength, which is entirely conceivable, Indians are told, in a not-too-distant future. Despite the hopeless unreality of the Indian narrative, influential interest groups sponsor or patronize it – ranging from sections within the Indian establishment to blatant war mongers to America’s lobbyists. In fact, the Brookings Institution, which has acquired institutional memory of the Indian national security establishment, confidently predicts that the Wuhan summit is a mere “adjustment” on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s part that is “not going to change key fundamental strategic – and competitive – dynamics” in the India-China relationship. 

However, the importance of the Wuhan summit cannot be underestimated. In an environment where Indian strategic discourses are steadily drained of original thinking and are increasingly the byproducts of US think tanks, it is astonishing that such a refreshing idea occurred to Modi’s sweet silent thoughts at all – to shift the locus of India-China relations from the here and now and to habitate it instead beneath an overarching canopy of long-term strategic consensus. Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping clocked 10 hours of conversation spread through six one-on-one meetings. Such a thing has never happened in the entire chronicle of India-China relations. India’s self-styled China watchers are stunned that Modi simply bypassed them and surged ahead. 

Yet, Modi is a hard-headed politician. And China is a country that he repeatedly visited even before becoming prime minister. His political instincts tell him that Delhi’s experimentation with its China policies during the past 3-year period since his famous Joint Vision Statement regarding the Asia-Pacific region with then US President Barack Obama in January 2015 has run aground. Simply put, Delhi’s lurch toward the US bandwagon in Asia-Pacific and Washington’s containment strategy against China was based on assumptions that proved to be delusional, causing serious damage to India’s relations with China.

The Wuhan summit is a success story for Modi. There isn’t going to be a war in the Himalayas. As Modi launches a do-or-die campaign shortly to seek a renewed mandate in the 2019 poll, peace and tranquility prevailing on India’s border becomes crucial. At Wuhan, the two leaders “issued strategic guidance to their respective militaries in order to build trust and mutual understanding and enhance predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs.” Second, Chinese investments in the Indian economy are poised to increase substantially, which would help create jobs and enable Modi to claim success in his “development agenda”. Modi is conscious that China is uniquely placed to help realize his dream of “making India great”.   

Confidential exchanges took place in Wuhan to harmonize the two countries’ regional policies and their respective “sensitivities, concerns and aspirations.” After what seemed an eternity, the two countries are once again exchanging views on ‘Asian Century’, ‘strategic autonomy’, ‘independent foreign policies’ and ‘multipolarity’. Delhi’s press release institutionalizes the Wuhan summit as “Informal Meeting” – a new platform for forward-looking dialogue to raise the level of strategic communication. These are all brilliant things. Nonetheless, the bottom line would still be that Modi needs another 5-year term as prime minister to build on the foundation he has created. No other Indian leader can match his political courage to take the leap of faith.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.