The Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping summit in Mamallapuram was certainly an international publicity bonanza for the leaders of the two of the most populous countries in the world, with Mamallapuram — the site of the ancient Tamil Kingdom from which traders set sail for China several centuries ago — as the backdrop. But one has to be careful in assessing the impact of the Modi-Xi meeting on China’s approach to India.
China’s global ambitions, even today, are directed at outstripping the US of global power and influence in the next few decades. US President Donald Trump’s imposition of stringent economic sanctions on China has shaken its leaders, who are readying to face a reduced growth rate of about 6 per cent per annum. The years of double-digit growth for China are now over. But, there should be no doubt that China will remain amongst the world’s fastest-growing economies in the coming years.
India has to realistically recognise that while it can strive to develop a stable balance of power in the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions, it has a long way to go before it comes anywhere near matching the overall Chinese power and influence.
China has continuously voiced concerns about the security implications of the ‘Quad’ grouping — Japan, Australia, the US and India. A senior Chinese military official, however, recently told the Communist Party’s mouthpiece Global Times that during the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in 2018, Modi had said: “India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy, or as a club of limited members. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country.”
Whilst the Chinese official was severely critical of US policies in the South China Sea, he added: “By no means do we consider the Quad as directed against any country. I don’t believe that any of the four countries in Quad wish to sacrifice its bilateral relationship with China for the benefits of the other three countries”. This was a remarkable change from China’s earlier stance of suspicion that the Quad was an American creation directed against China.
While we can derive some satisfaction from this statement — which recognises the truth in what Modi said in Singapore — we should remember the serious misgivings about China using coercive action to enforce its maritime boundary claims over countries like Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.
We also cannot ignore the Chinese machinations to back leaders and political parties all across South Asia that pose a risk to India.
There is clearly a Chinese attempt to create and foment differences with our South Asian neighbours, such as the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. Worse still, China has no regrets about its policies on Jammu and Kashmir — despite the abject failure of its attempts to internationalise the issue in the UN’s Security Council, Human Rights Commission and even the UN General Assembly. China’s support for Pakistan was reiterated when Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Beijing on the very day that President Xi was heading to Mamallapuram. There should be no illusion that Beijing will continue to use Pakistan as an instrument for strategic containment of India by strengthening the former’s nuclear, missile and conventional weapons capabilities.
Despite these policies, New Delhi would be well advised to continue its dialogue with Beijing to resolve differences on the border issue, based on the principles agreed upon in 2005 by the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and and former Premier Wen Jiabao.
There have been prolonged negotiations with China on India joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The RCEP grouping comprises the members of ASEAN, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and India. India would like in-built safeguards to limit and reduce its already huge trade deficit of $59 billion with China. One hopes this agreement can be sensibly and sensitively negotiated. The establishment of the RCEP would lead to the formation of an unprecedented transoceanic free trade area, extending across the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific.
With economic relations discussed at length and a ministerial-level committee to promote trade and investment established, the Mamallapuram meeting has resulted in an understanding to resolve serious differences on economic issues. There will be greater emphasis on the liberalisation of present Chinese restrictions on imports of a wide range of products and IT services from India.
Facing growing Western resistance on security considerations to the use of telecom giant Huawei for 5G services, China is now turning on the charm for India to agree to the use of Huawei 5G services. Much will depend on the security implications of Huawei’s 5G equipment being permitted to operate in India. There will be Chinese pressures and hard bargaining ahead, before New Delhi seriously considers the proposal.
China has not been particularly forthcoming in addressing Indian concerns on trade and investment. There could be a change in New Delhi’s approach if there are substantial offers of expanding industrial investment in India and if China’s doors are opened for Indian IT companies.
President Xi Jinping was deeply impressed when he learnt of the ancient trade links between Mamallapuram and the ports in China. He decided that Chinese tourists will be encouraged to visit the historical sites here. Promoting tourism for visits to Buddhist sites in India will, however, be an important task that New Delhi must undertake. India has to recognise that it is not regarded as an ideal tourist destination. Tourism facilities for visiting our heritage sites are really woeful by international standards.
The present Buddhist population in countries beyond our eastern borders — Bhutan, Nepal, China and Japan — is around 540 million. China alone, has a Buddhist population of around 245 million. Our eastern neighbours are keen to visit Buddhist places of worship not just in India, but also Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
India needs to think creatively about how it can promote Buddhist tourism as an important aspect of its “Act East” policy. This would involve close consultation and cooperation with Buddhist countries while developing a tourism infrastructure to welcome a few million additional tourists — primarily from our eastern neighbourhood — every year.
The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan