Can India Assert Itself Against China?


While Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did meet on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in July, Xi’s three-day trip to India last week was the first bilateral meeting between the two leaders, and there were high – somewhat unrealistic – expectations of the visit.

If one were to identify some of the more interesting aspects of the visit, the first would be that it came less than a month after Modi visited Japan. Modi was given a warm welcome by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with whom he shares a strong rapport. Modi’s trip to Japan was reasonably successful, and it was thus expected that Xi would also make strong overtures towards India, specifically in the economic realm.

Second, Xi arrived in Ahmedabad (Gujarat) on September 17 and not the capital New Delhi. The Indian premier also went against traditional protocol, and received the Chinese president and First Lady Peng Liyuan there.

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Xi’s visit to Gujarat was perhaps aimed at striking a personal chord with the Indian premier. Modi’s red carpet reception of Xi in Ahmedabad was also interesting. Not only did he get a chance to showcase Gujarat’s culture and heritage, but it was also in sync with Modi’s objective of exhibiting cities other than the nation’s capital, as well as India’s soft power. The premier’s keenness to utilize soft power was evident from their visit to the Sabarmati Ashram, and the cultural performances which followed. Before departing for China, Xi also invited Modi to visit Xian, which is the president’s hometown. The Chinese monk Huein Tsang, who stayed in India for over 16 years to study Buddhism (629-645 AD), spent his remaining life in Xian.

Beyond the visit to Sabarmati Ashram and the riverfront, some of the important agreements signed in Gujarat were the setting up of a business park in Ahmedabad, for which China will invest $5 billion. MOUs were also signed for a sister city pact between Guangzhao City and Ahmedabad, as well as Guangdong province in China and Gujarat.

By the second day of the visit, September 18, the bonhomie had considerably diminished. The main cause was the incursion by Chinese soldiers into Chumur (Ladakh). Incursions on the eve of high-level bilateral meetings are nothing new. Yet they did come as a surprise, especially at a time when Modi had made a strong effort to ensure the Dalai Lama delayed his visit to India, so that Xi did not have to face any embarrassment, even though the protests by Tibetans outside Hyderabad House surely could not have taken place without some approval from the top.

However, a number of agreements were signed between the countries, including assistance in upgrading railways, industrial parks and nuclear energy; twin city status for Mumbai and Shanghai; as well as further progress on the Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor.

China committed to investing $20 billion in India, far short of the $100 billion suggested by Liu Youfa, China’s Consul General in Mumbai.

The issue of Chinese incursions did, however, overshadow other issues. This point is clearly manifest by the fact that during Modi’s 90-minute meeting with Xi, as well as during the subsequent press statement, he unequivocally put forth India’s concerns about territorial disputes. He also made it clear that before moving ahead in other spheres such as economics, trade and increasing connectivity, it is important to address the trust deficit between both countries. Significantly, even former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made it clear to Xi that not much progress is possible in other realms without a resolution of the territorial dispute.

It is true that both countries need to recognize the reality that neither can expect to have their way completely. Similarly, cooperation in the economic sphere is desirable between both countries.

Yet, the tactic of twisting India’s arm may no longer be appropriate for China. While New Delhi has its share of strategic challenges, so does China – in its own neighborhood.

With a revival of economic growth, a focus on connectivity, and some proactive diplomacy in South Asia and South East Asia, India is likely to enjoy many economic and strategic opportunities. New Delhi may have faced a barrage of problems in the past three or four years, but it would be a mistake for Beijing to assume that India will quietly accept Chinese provocations.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonepat. The views contained here are the author’s.

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