By Siwei Liu*
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid his first visit to China since assuming office, from 14-16 May 2015. The visit has a great significance for present-day Sino-India relations, and also has a high importance for the geostrategic dynamics of the Asia Pacific region. Both China and India should seize the opportunity to build closer bilateral ties and work together for the stability and prosperity of the Asia Pacific.
Modi’s three-day China trip created a positive and friendly atmosphere for Sino-India bilateral relations. Modi received a warm welcome form the Chinese government and people. It is worth mentioning that Modi had visited China twice before he took office and so he has some previous personal experience of interacting with Chinese people. For example, Modi opened his Sina Weibo, the popular Chinese microblog, saying “Hello China!” ahead of his visit. He successfully used social media to narrow the distance between him and Chinese people.
Modi’s first stop in China was Xi’an, a famous historic and cultural city in the country’s Shaanxi Province. Xi’an is the incumbent Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hometown. There is no denying that Modi’s Xi’an trip easily echoes Xi’s September 2014 India trip in which the latter travelled to Modi’s home state Gujarat before flying to the capital, New Delhi. Previously, President Xi had never welcomed a foreign leader in Xi’an. The extraordinary arrangement demonstrated that the two leaders want to strengthen their personal relations in the future.
It is worth mentioning that as an ancient Chinese capital, Xi’an has an important link for cultural and economic interactions between China and India. So choosing Xi’ an as Modi’s first stop in China also demonstrated the two sides purposely emphasise their cultural exchange and economic cooperation.
Modi’s cultural diplomacy was indeed impressive. In Xi’an, Modi not only visited the Da Ci’en Temple and the Wild Goose Pagoda – built in commemoration of the Buddhist monk, Xuan Zang, and his efforts to popularise Buddhism in China – but also visited the famous Terracotta Warriors and Daxingshan Temple. In Beijing and Shanghai too, there were many cultural and educational exchange activities in Modi’s itinerary. They included attending the Yoga-Taichi demonstration event; addressing students at Tsinghua University; and participating in the opening ceremony of the Center for Gandhian and Indian Studies at Fudan University.
Doubtlessly, Modi’s attendances in these activities were welcomed in China. The Chinese media and the Chinese people were positive in their views of Modi’s visit.
Modi’s China visit has had fruitful results. Twenty-four agreements were signed during the visit. Both sides emphasised their cooperation in various fields, ranging from cultural and educational exchange to trade and investment. Additionally, Indian and Chinese companies inked 21 agreements worth $22 billion during the India-China Business Forum in Shanghai. Both sides also agreed to boost increased cooperation between Chinese provinces and Indian state governments and inked agreements towards the establishment of sister-state/province partnership between Karnataka and Sichuan, and sister-city relationships between Aurangabad-Dunhuang, Chennai-Chongqing and Hyderabad-Qingdao.
Predictably, these agreements will help deepening the bilateral and will benefit local communities as well.
Additionally, Modi announced a new electronic visa scheme for Chinese nationals in his speech at Tsinghua University. Obviously, China appreciated Modi’s decision, though the e-visa decision had not figured in the aforementioned 24 agreements. If Modi’s promise is kept, it will help enhance people-to-people ties.
Admittedly, Modi’s visit has begun a new era in bilateral relations, but the fact that the two sides have different interests and trust deficits on some issues could be neglected. In recent years, the increasing geopolitical competition between the two nations is apparent. India has concerns over China’s growing influence in South Asia and the India Ocean and the Chinese strategic community is concerned about Indian closer defence relations with US and Japan. Even in economic relations, the two nations have to deal with various challenges such as the potential energy competition and trade deficit. In addition, although the two sides have underlined enhancing border defence cooperation during this visit, their differences on border issues are still big.
Perhaps, national interests, competitions and trust deficit between New Delhi and Beijing cannot be resolved overnight; but given that India and China have common interests in various fields, there are possibilities for more cooperation between the two. In fact, many Asian experts and business leaders in both countries are positive in their views of a deeper cooperation between the two countries.
Modi’s visit has come at a very critical time, one that coincides with the rise of the two Asian giants – China and India – in a changing Asia-Pacific architecture. The visit has provided a good and positive platform for the two sides to promote the cooperation relations.
Both sides should recognise that pursuing a win-win approach to intensify cooperation is not only beneficial for the two countries, but also can contribute to regional stability, development and prosperity. If possible, the two sides should discuss more practical ways to deepen cooperation and perfect related-regime construction. For example, given that the two sides are likely to link the Chinese 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative with India’s Project Mausam and the Spice Route Project together, they need to undertake more dialogues and interactions both through Track-I and Track-II channels and let the other side know more details about projects.
* Siwei Liu
Assistant Researcher, Institute of South Asian Studies, Sichuan University, China