From Xi To Obama: Challenges For Modi – Analysis


By C Uday Bhaskar

From the just-concluded visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will soon embark for the USA where, apart from his maiden address to the UN General Assembly, the focus will be on his first meeting with US President Barack Obama.

While the more visible part of the Modi visit will no doubt be the public interaction with the Indian diaspora in New York where more than 20,000 participants are expected, the more substantive part will be in Washington DC.

The abiding strategic challenge for Prime Minister Modi, as it was for his predecessor Manmohan Singh, will be to find the right balance in India’s triangular relationship with the US on one hand and China on the other. The emerging global macro-economic configuration over the next two decades points to a triangular arrangement with China overtaking the US to be the world’s largest GDP by about 2025. While the US will still be a close second, the third spot will be that of India’s which is projected to be a distant third.

The anomalous situation that will obtain is that while China will be the world’s most prosperous nation in overall terms (and not per capita), the US will still be the most powerful military nation and symbolizes the democratic constituency in global affairs. Latent China-US contestation is inherent in such a configuration, and the challenge for India will be to find the space and leverages to both protect and advance its core national interests in a complex major power framework and an increasingly globalized world order.

The Xi visit to India was rich in optics and, from the Ahmedabad visit and the homage to Mahatma Gandhi at the ashram, the symbolism for a potentially cooperative relationship was contained in the Modi formulation of “INCH to MILES”. On the eve of the Xi visit, the Indian prime minister asserted that from being just “India-China”, the relationship would now become the “Millennium of Exceptional Synergy”.

However, the mismatch between this highly desirable objective to that which is in the realm of the feasible was more than apparent by the time President Xi arrived in Delhi. India-China relations have been enveloped in a great degree of mistrust and opacity over a range of tangled security and strategic differences and none more sensitive than the disputed territorial and border issue that saw the two Asian giants engage in brief border war in October 1962.

Intriguingly, the Xi visit in Delhi began with reports of an incursion by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Chumar sector of Ladakh and this cast a shadow over the symbolism of MILES. Various interpretations are being offered about why the PLA chose to act in this manner during a high-level political visit, and it may be recalled that in April 2013 ahead of Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang’s visit to India there was a similar standoff. At the time Delhi stood its ground and indicated that the Li visit would have to be rescheduled if the PLA troops did not withdraw, and finally an uneasy modus vivendi was arrived at.

This time around there is considerable speculation as to whether President Xi was in the decision making loop about this Chinese PLA incursion or not. As in the past, there is unwavering opacity about who in Beijing had authorized this PLA initiative, and this will be one more incident in the uneasy Sino-Indian relationship. What is more germane are the consequences of the fallout of the Xi visit to India against this backdrop.

It may be summarized that the first Modi-Xi summit has delivered below the median on substantive issues, and while the two leaders may have established a comfortable personal equation, they are visibly constrained by the weight of their respective historical narratives and inheritance.

But one fact emerges from the Xi visit. The complex territorial and border dispute that till now was cloaked in expansive statements and generalities has now acquired a prominent status in the political dialogue between the two nations. The joint statement issued after the Xi visit made the mandatory reference and observed: “Pending a final resolution of the boundary question, the two sides would continue to make joint efforts to maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas.” And yet both sides continue to maintain troop levels in the Chumar sector and the unease prevails.

For Prime Minister Modi having now met with his Japanese counterpart in Tokyo and the Chinese president in Delhi, the next critical meeting is with US President Obama. From a phase of deep estrangement, the major punctuation in the bilateral relationship with the US is the Bush-Manmohan Singh nuclear rapprochement that was concluded in late 2008. However, the last six years have been relatively static due to the domestic political compulsions on both sides – first for Singh and now for President Obama.

The Modi challenge will be to infuse traction and directivity to the moribund India-US relationship, and some indicators are stark. The US is itself beleaguered economically and will not be able to offer any significant investment in the manner that Japan ($35 billion) and to an extent China ($20bn) have promised. Neither is any kind of formal military alliance an option for India – notwithstanding the anxieties generated by Beijing’s military assertiveness.

For India the path is clear: To determinedly enhance its economic, technological and military capabilities across the board and arrive at some degree of mutuality with China in terms of comprehensive national power. The visit of US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel offered a menu of options for India to address its many military inventory and defence production gaps. Hopefully, Prime Minister Modi will be able to resurrect some of the possibilities that had been identified in the Rumsfeld-Mukherjee agreement of June 2005 in his meeting with President Obama. As the last decade has demonstrated, an empathetic Delhi-Washington relationship makes Beijing more malleable when it deals with Delhi.

This is the strategic equipoise that the Modi visit must realize in the long run and, summit level political dialogue apart, the Indian diaspora remains an untapped gene pool of human resource and valuable expertise.

(Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar (Retd), is Director of the Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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