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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 22, May 23, 2015

Modi’s Trips to China, Mongolia, South Korea: Treading Carefully

Friday 22 May 2015, by Uttam Sen


The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s China visit must be intriguing experts and amateurs alike. There was a huge line-up list to be addressed. But the impression, that it was being negotiated withal through the symbolic representation of culture, realpolitik, trade and finance, was thought-provoking. Modi’s reception in Xi Jinping’s hometown of Xian corresponded with Xi’s scheduling of Ahmedabad as his first stop in September last year. Modi’s visit to the Giant Golden Goose Pagoda, which had held Buddhist sutras brought to China from India by the 7th century traveller, Xuan Zang, were of a piece with the scriptural aphorisms which bond diversity. To be sure, there is a larger perspective that remains persuasive, that is, Asia’s civilisational congruence despite the seeming diplomatic gymnastics required to stay the course. This is appropriate for reasons which unfold in due course.

Modi’s China trip was in a way incomplete without his visits to Mongolia and South Korea. In the latter he concluded deals which included aid (to Mongolia) and “strategic” networking (with both Mongolia and South Korea). With South Korea the agenda was predictably much wider. Some Korean brands are household names in India and we would like further collaboration in an area like ship-building. South Korea is a source of nuclear energy technology and fuel supply to India after a nuclear deal signed in 2011. Korean research and develop-ment, and the relative cheapness of its products, have given it a ready market in India as well as West Asia. Korean innovation has helped the Indian workforce absorb the skills required to assemble its products, though India would sorely wish to have them manufactured here as well. Korean technical assistance, particularly in electronics, can be an asset in infrastructure development. On the strategic front the Seoul connection can give India maritime presence, specifically berthing facilities, in the East China Sea.

It bears recalling that South Korea does flourishing business with China and, if anything, nurses memories (along with China) of Japanese occupation. Japan is, of course, one of India’s other strategic partners.

It would be a good thing to remember that China is caught in a South Asian bind with Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, in which Pakistan figures as an all-weather friend, despite the export of terror to India. India’s outflanking movement in the Asia-Pacific is about what China could expect. There are two mitigating circumstances. China’s investments can ease the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border regions, fostered and financed by various vested interests and the sale of opium. Selective targeting of terror groups, for example, just the Haqqanis and not the others operating with impunity, has confounded matters. Secondly, discerning observers have noted a certain shift in China’s attitude. India would be invited, along with Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Business Council, arguably as part of the package to sort out things.

These will take time. Analyses are growing in complexity to tell that mischief and cons-piracy do not have to come from afar and can brew within. In the interim, life must go on, in the spirit reiterated at Bandung 2015, of an awareness of the past. The present, with its inter-connected pressure points, should be viewed against that backdrop. Under these conditions, Modi’s reiteration of “one world” and the centrality of India in BRICS were well-taken. India and China would pursue their security options, both traditional and non-traditional, despite appearances.

Modi was thought to have done well in China on a three-pronged approach of economics and politics underpinned by culture and civilisation. He went directly to the uncomfortable political questions of Pakistan, river waters and border issues, but unfailingly pitched for infrastructure development, an indelible throwback for his hosts whom Japan had financed in the 1990s.

Strong internal perceptions and values had been tethered to diverse global approaches. Both esteemed the other’s ability to get along, significantly so in doing business. There was recognition of mutual success. China is technically ahead today. Nonetheless, Indian security, progress and autonomy have created reasonable indemnities. Successfully main-taining the momentum of a modus vivendi carried over from the past was also creditable.

It was palpably demonstrated in the envisaged collaboration between provincial units. Perhaps Modi’s enunciation of the State units as the sustaining elements of the whole will be more convincing when the benefits are uniformly distributed. But like the noteworthy agreement between Doordarshan and China’s CCTV to make productions of mutual interest, Indian and Chinese feeling their way through each other’s home turfs could be instructive. The people of mainland China have for long been insulated from India, and vice versa, and there is reason to believe we mutually nurse stereotypes which are not true to life. The easing of travel to widen horizons has been generally welcomed, even the unilateral gesture of electronic visas for the Chinese in the hope of reciprocation

In the international arena, advising China to change its strategic course could have meant anything from readjusting to the halcyon Mao-Nehru 1950s’ vision of a common destiny for newly-liberated people to a more routine caveat to connect with, rather than overhaul, the current world order. In reply India was invited to participate in the Silk Route and Maritime Belts and shun the prospective alliance In the Asia-Pacific. Differences were to be preferably referred to the reciprocal court of mutual under-standing and respect rather than any third-party arbitration. These testing questions will surely be answered in the fullness of time. India was reported to have shown some interest in the Bangladesh-Myanmar-India-China corridor as part of its Act East policy but maintained its studied reticence on the activity to its west. Clearly both sides will continue on their chosen paths. But they will also retain their bilateral salience.

The investments announced, meaningfully via the financial institutions created by China and in the digitalised universe of tomorrow’s world, among others, suffused the proceedings with an aura of long-term continuity. “Make in India”, where applicable, will create jobs and enable India to cash in on a window of opportunity. But there is also another world which is in need of holistic attention. Its counterparts in China have universally acquired essential agencies of livelihood. When comparable intellectual, cultural and material development (the gist of “civilisation”) are recalled, India tends to fall behind its own pristine standards. The quality of humaneness underlies traditionally defined national interest in India. Trade, commerce, manufacturing and the rate of growth are increasingly treated as the bottom-line and are important, but they do not entirely do justice to Indian exceptionalism. We can feel more reassured by practices that celebrate human values, capacities and worth, as complemen-tarities rather than antidotes to other necessary means of material progress.

The multi-party system in India must be part of that exceptionalism, at least in Chinese eyes. Yet India’s system of governance has been held responsible for perpetuating poverty. Experts incidentally feel that China would not have adjusted to a two-party system. In India political views are freely circulated to dull the burnish of official rhetoric, for example, Modi’s profess-ions of cooperative federalism failing the test in the stand-off between the Delhi State administration and the Centre, according to the Congress-I. The CPI intends to study the nature of the $ 22 billion in investments,watchful of whom it really benefits. India and China would not want to defy a thousand years of peaceful co-existence to collide in future, though we tussled in 1962, barely eight years after Nehru and Mao had exchanged views across the gamut of post-Independence issues. Our affinities and antipathies are both legion. But constructive interplay is not far-fetched, mediating as it does the state of play within the country as well.

The author is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

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