Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar has not taken a single weekend off since taking charge on February 28. Yet, he tells his colleagues that he has very little to do as his core responsibilities are limited to just 18 countries. Unable to take this self-deprecating humour anymore, one of his prominent colleagues told him that all 18 countries under him were adult global powers and that was why they required a workaholic diplomat. Needless to say, the most critical one in Jaishankar’s kitty is China and his expertise will be tested as Prime Minister Narendra Modi lands in Beijing on May 14 for a three-day visit.
The China leg of Modi’s three-nation tour, which also covers Mongolia and South Korea, was on from the moment Jaishankar took charge. It was believed that as former ambassador to Beijing, he would be uniquely qualified to ensure a successful prime ministerial visit.
Indian diplomats say that although Modi and President Xi Jinping are different temperamentally, they are both fond of direct communication. Like Modi who uses television, radio and social media platforms—he debuted on Chinese social media last week—to communicate directly with voters, Xi writes and publishes his speeches, giving glimpses of the thought process in the top echelons of the Chinese leadership. The two leaders will get a chance to exchange notes when they meet on May 14 in Xi’s hometown of Xi’an, the famous heritage site, which was the starting point of Xuanzang’s legendary journey to India. However, apart from the symbolism at Xi’an, serious questions need to be addressed when the two leaders meet.
Xi had visited Gujarat and Delhi eight months ago as the first high-profile guest of Modi and concluded 12 agreements, including a promise to invest in projects worth $20 billion. Both sides had also agreed to set up a contact group to deal with tricky issues like the huge trade deficit which went against India. The group is yet to meet. Most of the promises remain unfulfilled, too.
Observers say Modi has okayed his visit to China in a spirit of reciprocation without noting how many of Xi's promises have been implemented so far. “China had promised to invest in industrial parks in Gujarat and Maharashtra and assured Indian investments in the software sector. There has been no progress on those fronts,” says Kanwal Sibal, former Indian diplomat. He says that traditionally a Beijing trip by an Indian prime minister is not undertaken without very serious strategising.
American Sinologist Aaron Friedberg says Chinese plans about the trip are not yet clear. "It is evident that they want to make some symbolic gesture," he says. "Most probably, they want to keep the Indian government engaged and do not want to stay cold on Modi." Friedberg says there is a growing international perception that when it comes to Sino-Indian ties, there are differences between the Indian civilian and military establishments.
Concerns over India’s nuclear status could be a point that China would want to raise. "China is worried about India’s de facto nuclear power status, which has helped India up its demands in multilateral forums like the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the UN Security Council where India is insisting on permanent membership. Though China cannot do anything to prevent India’s de facto nuclear status, Modi will experience the Chinese position on nuclear and multilateral issues closely," says Friedberg.
Modi will get a chance to deal with concerns like the growing China-Pakistan ties, which got a major boost when Xi announced projects worth $46 billion during his visit to Pakistan last month. Sibal says the deal is a setback to Modi’s China policy. Stapled Chinese visa for residents of Arunachal Pradesh and the border disputes, too, are likely to be taken up during the visit. South Block sources say the two sides will try to find ways to add life to the talks between special representatives Ajit Doval and Yang Jiechi on the border dispute. Doval and Yang met for the first time earlier this year, without any substantial results. Sources say the "out of the box" solution for the border dispute, which External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had spoken about after her meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in February, remains elusive. China, for instance, reacted angrily when Modi visited Arunachal Pradesh in February to launch a rail link.
On a brighter note, a number of financial deals between Indian companies and Chinese financial institutions are likely to be finalised. Indian companies, which are open to receiving loans from Chinese banks, are likely to get permission to go ahead. According to South Block sources, there is a strong possibility that telecom major Airtel might sign a deal worth $10 billion with a prominent Chinese bank during the visit. Indian partnership in the Silk Route project and the Maritime Silk Route project is also expected to figure in the talks.
In one of his speeches published in his collected works titled The Governance of China, Xi recounts a Chinese proverb: "Neighbours wish each other well, just as loved ones do to each other." Modi and his team will soon know whether China counts India among its loved ones.
During Xi's September 2014 visit to India, 12 projects worth $20 billion were announced. These included reduction of trade imbalance, creation of a transparent and stable business environment, cooperation in fighting trans-border economic crimes, cooperation in outer space and satellite services, cooperation in maintaining drug standards, developing an alternative route for the Manasarovar yatra, cooperation in developing high-speed and heavy-haul transport in the railways sector and setting up industrial parks in Pune and Gujarat. Eight months later, these projects are yet to take off.
Core issues affecting Sino-Indian ties:
* Border disputes and intrusions
* Increasing China-Pakistan cooperation
* Increasing India-US cooperation
* Chinese presence in Pak-occupied Kashmir
* Huge trade imbalance in favour of China
* Brahmaputra water dispute
* Lack of people-to-people contact