Modi-Xi summit offers chance for shift to regional partnership

By Swaran Singh Source:Global Times Published: 2015-5-13 22:58:02

The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) in India reportedly instructed Amit Shah, president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to cancel a meeting with the Dalai Lama that was scheduled to take place during his May 2 visit to Dharamsala, the headquarters of the Tibetan "government-in-exile." The fact that it happened at the last hour was seen by many as publicly humiliating the Dalai Lama and showed the cost that the Modi government was willing to take to please Chinese leaders.

The PMO had explained how this meeting would be "highly inappropriate" in view of Modi's first state visit to China. If we put this jigsaw puzzle together, then it clearly reflects Modi's new-found pragmatic approach toward China's sensitivities and his understanding on India's need to partner with a rising China.

It does not end here. This change of heart is deeper than the Modi government. The Hindu right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), closely affiliated with Modi, had always been weary of China. Referring to the China-India war of 1962, "unchecked aggressor" is the usual epithet that the RSS cadres always use to describe India's largest neighbor. The RSS shares a close relationship with the BJP and it is often seen as the driver of the BJP's official agenda.

Indeed, till as recently as October 2014, RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat had called for boycotting Chinese products and another estranged RSS ideologue had cautioned Modi never to "ape the Chinese." 

Organiser, the official mouthpiece of the RSS, in a lead story recently, outlines its new-found wisdom on China-India relations in saying that "the well-calibrated symbolism of Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping shows the duo has a better chance in achieving breakthroughs and bringing down negativity over political questions."

Indeed, the story compares Modi to the Buddha and the poet Tagore in having left a deep impression on China's popular consciousness.

This backdrop perhaps explains Modi's opening an account on Weibo and also his much-quoted comments in his recent interview in the New York-based Time magazine where he talks of both sides having "learnt from history," which marks a clear U-turn from his earlier elections speeches, and even his September 2014 speech in Japan, where he had alluded to China's expansionism.

The last four weeks before Modi's visit to China have also witnessed India's Defence Minister and Army Chief visiting border areas and three consecutive meetings of Chinese and Indian field commanders on the border.

This is to ensure that there is zero possibility of any repeat of the border standoffs that negatively impacted the concluding day of Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to India last September.

What all this means is that the ruling establishment of India does not wish to leave any stone unturned to ensure the positive environment for the Xi-Modi summit, which is expected to usher in a subtle "reset" in China-India relations marking a beginning of a gradual shift from bilateral-centric to regional and global; from a trust deficit to coordination and partnership; and from ad hoc plugging of loopholes and crisis-management to long-term bold initiatives to evolve a shared vision for future.

Thus, in spite of their continuing formidable trade-deficit or China's recent indulgences with its all-weather ally Pakistan, Modi comes to China with the firm grounding of a mandate to engage China and also with modest and pragmatic expectations.

His excellent control this time should enable Xi and Modi to have free and frank discussions without feeling too much pressures to provide showcase photo-ops and media bites for the domestic public on both sides. Since both see themselves as ordained to be at the helm for a whole decade, their summit should mark an important but first step in their long journey together into building, not just theirs, but Asia's future.

The author is professor of diplomacy & disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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