Monday, September 22, 2014
It's a remarkable coincidence that Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping are brothers cast in the same mould. Both are believers in centralised authority, who spent their initial months in office consolidating their hold on the power structure. Both seek enlarged international status for their countries and for themselves. Both are fighters behind their smiles. Both are shrewd with the capacity to be, when necessary, ruthless. Both manoeuvre and manipulate with skill. Preparatory to his meeting with Xi, Modi did some manoeuvres with Japan, Australia and Vietnam all of which challenged China's stated positions. Preparatory to his meeting with Modi, Xi did some manoeuvres with Maldives, Sri Lanka and in Ladakh all of them aimed at intimidating India.
Then came Sabarmati. Majestic, peaceful Sabarmati, its waters twinkling in myriad lights, its banks bedecked with spectacular displays, Gujarat's finest art, culture and cuisine on show. No visiting dignitary has ever received so warm and so personal a reception from the Prime Minister of India as Xi received from Modi in Ahmedabad. Everything was so companionable that it would not have surprised anyone if star singer Peng Liyuan, Xi's wife, had broken into an operatic number.
But harsh facts remained. The relationship between India and China is unequal -- in China's favour. This is so at diplomatic and economic levels. Never has a top Chinese leader visited India without including nearby countries in his itinerary; India is for them one among many. Never has an Indian leader visited China except on a stand-alone basis; China is never one among many. India exports virtually nothing to China while more than 10 percent of India's total imports is from China, making us an economic dependency of China. Traditional local industries like Sivakasi's fireworks were devastated by cheap Chinese imports.
Most importantly, China's border politics is intriguingly aggressive. Every time a senior Government leader arrives from Beijing, there is a sudden rush of demonstrative "incidents" in Ladakh, this time more demonstrative than before. Xi is the head of China's military and intelligence establishments as well and he could have easily kept the border peaceful at least during the three days he was in India. But he stuck to the familiar pattern of visits coinciding with incursions. Why? Was it China, timeless and unchanging China, expressing itself as was always its wont, Xi or no Xi?
Modi described India and China as two bodies, one spirit. That's wrong. China's spirit is singularly different from India's. For some six millenia the Chinese have seen their country as the Middle Kingdom, the central point of the world (then considered flat). This developed into a national pride unmatched in the world. Xi himself said, when he was Vice President, that national pride "is the historical driving force" of China.
Narendra Modi cannot make that claim for his country. We only have to look at sports to see the contrast. China attained glory with the Olympics in 2008 because even Beijing's street sweepers took it into their heads that the prestige of their country depended on how well they did their job. Corrupt politicians shamed India with the Commonwealth Games. Inefficient bureaucrats messed up the accreditation papers of several Incheon-bound athletes, including star shooter Abhinav Bindra. Modi may talk about new work ethics, but our national characterlessness goes on.
The silver lining is that for the first time in many years the two countries have strong leaders at the helm with the mandate to take bold action. They can achieve what their predecessors could not. But only if Xi is ready to see India as an equal to China, and Modi gives up what some Hindutva hardliners called his "over-effusiveness" towards China. Modi can follow two lines. First, firm up India's relations with ASEAN countries, especially Vietnam, who are resentful of China's attempt to lord it over them. This can be done without going to the extent of doing what China does by equipping Pakistan against India. Secondly, take up China on its declaration that "we are prepared to reach a final settlement" on the border issue. What kind of final settlement? Drawing a line in Ladakh where none exists is one thing, it is quite another to replace a line that already exists along the Arunachal Pradesh border. The most important point is that no meaningful relationship is possible between the two countries if the border tensions continue. History's call to Modi and Xi is clear. Will they rise to it? That depends on whether they are politicians or statesmen.