As India preps for U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s three-day visit beginning today, it is important to note that he wouldn’t be the first high-level visitor from a major power to arrive in New Delhi since Narendra Modi’s re-election as prime minister last month. Following that watershed event – in what was called India’s first “national-security election” – the import of Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s meeting with a very senior Communist Party of China (CPC) leader soon after assuming office was lost on many.
Between that meeting, Jaishankar’s own visit to Bhutan, as well as Modi’s trip to the Maldives and Sri Lanka – two countries that have found themselves playing China and India off in the past – it is fair to hypothesize that in its second iteration, the Modi government is likely to adopt a much more nuanced approach toward China, and Beijing’s clout in India’s neighborhood. As the New Delhi commentariat continues to be riveted by the possibility of a rapprochement between India and Pakistan, a much more pronounced rebalancing when it comes to China is underway.
When the Party Secretary of Guangdong province and Central Politburo member Li Xi met Jaishankar on June 6, the normally-scrutinizing media here – one that pays particular attention to who is in town and for what – failed to realize its significance. First, reports only perfunctorily noted that the Hong Kong-bordering Guangdong by itself is a major economy a GDP of more than $1.4 trillion, making it bigger than Australia in economic size as well as the fact that Modi’s home state of Gujarat has a particularly close relationship with that province, as “sister states.”
But second, and more strikingly, not many bothered in India to look up who Li Xi is – not merely a CPC Politburo member and effectively the head of communist China’s economic crown jewel in terms of its provinces, but as a leader known to be very close to president Xi Jinping. A Brookings Thornton China Center portrait of Li notes “[t]he personal relationship between Xi Jinping and Li Xi has been widely reported in the Chinese media, reinforcing the public perception that Li is Xi’s confidant.” Li, who became Guangdong party chief in 2017, had previously worked in Shanxi, Xi’s home province.
As evidence of Xi’s personal relationship with Li as well as faith Xi reposes in him, it is important to note that Li replaced Hu Chunhua as Guangdong party chief; Hu was widely seen as a potential successor of Xi in 2022 (following the 19th CPC Congress of 2017). This suggested to many that Li’s appointment was a further sign of the prevalence of the “Xi Jinping faction” in the pecking order in Beijing.
Li’s visit to New Delhi, thus, is far from devoid of serious significance. One can be all but certain that Li came as Xi’s emissary, though it is unclear to what extent his India trip was planned ahead of the elections here. Whatever be the case, this visit fits nicely in a pattern of low-key but significant engagements between the two countries. Indian press reports have noted an uptick in party-to-party ties, between Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the CPC, with a BJP source noting that a high-level delegation from their party to China could be in the making.
If Li’s visit to New Delhi portends to an ongoing recalibration of India-China ties, the rise of the political fortunes of his host, foreign minister Jaishankar, is no less a sign of things to come. While most commentators have focused largely on Jaishankar’s contributions to the U.S.-India relationship (and sotto voce expect him to arrest its downturn), some see in his appointment as foreign minister a concerted effort on Modi’s part to cool temperatures with China.
As veteran Indian journalist Praveen Swami noted in a recent column, the 2017 India-China military standoff in Doklam was the culmination of an aggressive strategy promoted by Indian national security advisor Ajit Doval “of staring down China all along its contested borders with India.” As Swami writes:
External affairs ministry insiders say that Jaishankar, as he prepared to leave office in January 2018 [after a tenure as India’s foreign secretary], was convinced that Doval’s strategy had failed. Long a proponent of a nuanced, fluid strategy on China — one that sought incremental gains even in the face of border problems — he now has the opportunity to put his own ideas to the test.
Jaishankar’s pragmatism – in face of Doval’s penchant for “looking the Chinese in the eyes,” as one senior journalist put it to me – was also in display when it came to the Modi government’s shift in its neighborhood strategy. After a disastrous political setback when it came to Nepal – Delhi’s informal blockade of that landlocked country in late 2015-early 2016 continues to breed ill feelings in Kathmandu – as well as a complicated term that saw Sri Lanka and the Maldives fall out and then fall back in India’s orbit (the latter only made possible through the concerted efforts of India’s external intelligence service), Modi in his new avatar seems to have realized that coercion and mercantilism in the neighbourhood can be only counterproductive.
As Jaishankar’s political star rises at the relative expense of Doval’s influence – while Doval remains NSA, with Jaishankar in the picture the Modi government in its second term has an additional powerful foreign-policy voice – a shift in India’s neighborhood policy is in the making. In his first public interaction following his appointment as foreign minister, Jaishankar spoke of India’s need to deemphasize “reciprocity” as a foundational principle when it comes to the country’s interaction with its smaller neighbors.
This struck many as an echo of the Gujral Doctrine, so named after an Indian prime minister from the Janata Dal party who had emphasized precisely such (and to many hawks in New Delhi, weak-willed) precepts. And at a symbolic level, Modi’s visit to the Maldives and Sri Lanka – the prime minister’s first foreign trips in his second term – as well as Jaishankar’s first as foreign minister to Bhutan visit signals New Delhi’s renewed and nuanced engagement with the neighborhood.