Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit China in May. "Hometown diplomacy", took President Xi Jinping to Modi’s home state when he visited India last September; it will now be Modi’s turn to visit Xian during his visit. Xian is the capital of Xi’s home province and was once the nucleus of the Silk Route.
According to the state-run China Daily, "hometown diplomacy" is emerging as the latest trend to showcase the closeness of ties between countries. Such closeness, even if it is punctuated with differences and disputes, is better than mutual demonisation.
The visit will be amid diplomatic outreach by the prime minister and heightened expectations from him on resolution of India’s problems with neighbours.
The Chinese president’s visit a few months after Modi’s ascension to power at the Centre in May last created the right atmospherics for a forward movement. It got a boost when foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, during her visit to China last month, hinted at the possibility of some "out of box" ideas being thrown up to reinvigorate the talks on the disputed border.
Though the issues between India and China range from the traditional security and strategic concerns to management of the Brahmaputra waters, the border dispute has been the defining feature of the relations for more than half-a-century since the 1962 war between the two nations.
China’s shenanigans in India’s immediate neighbourhood and forays into the Indian Ocean have spawned concerns about China’s policy of encircling India with a "pearl of strings". China’s defence budget, which has been rising consistently and is almost thrice the amount India spends on defence, has fuelled these apprehensions.
India’s present defence capabilities are unlikely to be a matter of concern to China but from China’s perspective India’s focus on development of infrastructure along the border/Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, its growing engagement with Japan and other countries in the region under "Look East, Act East", and its forays into the South China Sea cannot but be a source of discomfort.
Whatever be the extent of this discomfort, it cannot be equated with India’s concerns over strategic partnership between China and an unstable Pakistan. It raises the spectre of India having to face two nuclear armed neighbours simultaneously if things go out of hand.
This may be a remote possibility but its implications are so grave that India has no option but to factor it into its strategic calculus. These problems are not new. A lot of ground has been covered in the past and there have been some positive spin-offs in regard to bilateral trade, investment and convergence on some vital issues at inter-national forums.
Even on the border issue, there has been a significant development. On October 23, 2013, the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) was signed between the two countries. It was the latest in a series of agreements signed since 1993.
The 2013 agreement acknowledges "the need to continue to maintain peace, stability and tranquillity along the line of actual control in the India-China border areas and to continue implementing confi-dence building measures in the military field along the Line of Actual Control".
Despite this preface, perceptions about the efficacy of this agreement differ. A commentary that appeared in Hong Kong after the agreement was signed described it as a “signal that all of China’s land border problems are in the process of settlement”. Indian defence analysts have been rather sceptical. Some very ill-timed incursions by the People's Liberation Army, including the totally inexplicable incursion while the Chinese president was on the Indian soil last October, have reinforced that scepticism.
Pact is not bad
Such incidents notwithstanding, BDCA may not be such a bad idea after all. Read in the context of its preamble, settlement of "China’s land border problems", which the Hong Kong commentary talked about, cannot imply unilateral settlement to the disadvantage of India. The two sides need to identify the ambiguities and gaps in the 2013 agreement, as indeed in other agreements under which talks are being conducted on different tracks, and address those issues — even supplement them - so that resolution of all contentious issues could be fast-tracked.
Increasing bilateral trade and investment, with focus on reducing India’s trade deficit, should be a priority. It suits both the countries at this stage and has the potential to take the sting out of other more contentious issues. The potential of cultural exchanges remains largely untapped for want of out of box ideas.
It will be unrealistic to expect China to compromise on its policies with regard to the Indian Ocean, strategic ties with Pakistan, and India’s quest for permanent membership of the UN Security Council. It will make little sense to press these points beyond a point. China is bound to have a counternarrative to deflect them. India has to meet these challenges on its own steam.
On its part, China is expected to raise the issue of India’s participation in the new Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road projects during the prime minister’s visit. The Silk Road will run through Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM). India cannot be seen to be cold to an idea that affects some of its own neighbours who India is reaching out to.
Having created the suspense with the prospects of "out of box" ideas, Prime Minister Modi has posited himself in an advantageous position. These ideas could become the distinguishing feature of the impending visit. He and his entire team have their task cut out for them ahead of the visit.