US President Richard Nixon’s path-breaking visit to China in February 1972 could arguably be called the mother of all ‘resets’ of a major bilateral relationship. In his own words, it was ‘the week that… changed the world’ and there can be little disagreement on this score.
The ‘informal summit’ between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping that begins today in the Chinese city of Wuhan in Hubei province is also being advertised as a key moment in the relationship.
What explains the timing of the summit and its motivations?
Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back
Following its election victory in 2014, the BJP government’s swearing-in ceremony indicated a perceptibly hard line on China. The so-called ‘China reset’, however, suggests that the Modi government did not really have a clear plan of action for China for the entire five years of its term like it does in terms of its domestic policies.
The problem has been compounded by the fact that the Modi government has not been able to ensure the economic growth necessary to sustain an assertive approach to China, including adequate defence preparedness.
Yet, there was wisdom in staying the course Modi set in 2014 with respect to China because it at least afforded opportunities for India to initiate fresh thinking and approaches to long-standing problems and it certainly forced the Chinese to sit up and take note.
The BJP government’s quick reversal of even its latest advisory to government officials on not attending Tibet-related events only buttresses the point that its flip-flop on China policy is actually based more on domestic political considerations -– of appearing to be tough on foreign policy -– than any long-term strategic thinking.
Overreading Xi’s Power
If the Modi government thinks there is genuine value in the ‘reset’ with China for India’s political and security interests, that the Chinese will be amenable to improving relations with India because this is both desirable and a rational course of action, then New Delhi has made at least two fundamental misjudgments.
First, Xi’s accretion of power domestically in China appears to have created the impression within the government that China itself has had an accretion in power. This is a mistaken reading of Xi’s domestic successes. The fact that Xi and the CPC have to constantly reiterate their centrality to the rest of the country can also be read as a sign of weakness, even if this is not immediately apparent.
The easy conflation of Xi with China as a whole actually only reflects the mindset within the halls of power in New Delhi that also ties Modi the individual, too closely to the growth and success of his country.
Second, Xi’s unchallenged leadership of the Communist Party, the PLA and the Chinese state paradoxically, suggest that it will be his handling of the domestic situation primarily –- the economy and domestic dissent –- that will determine his ability to be effective in power even if his stay in office is assured for the foreseeable future.
Contrary to popular perception, therefore, this could mean that many aspects of China’s assertive foreign policy so far -– the Belt & Road Initiative, the South China Sea disputes, and relationships with key powers –- will possibly run on autopilot with experienced bureaucrats in charge as seems to be indicated by the promotions in recent months of career diplomats like Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi.
With bureaucrats in charge of Chinese foreign policy and their tendency towards status quo and not upsetting order which would require political intervention, a little patience and a longer-term perspective could have allowed New Delhi the temptation to avoid attempting to mollify or placate the Chinese through a ‘reset’.
Meanwhile, it would be incorrect to suggest that the summit is as important to the Chinese owing to pressures in the Korean peninsula or from the trade war with the US. Note that there will be no joint communique or statement by which the ‘informal summit’ might be assessed.
Just as ‘only Nixon could go to China’ and come away creating the impression that US interests were served even as he made the compromises necessary to reorder relations with China, so it also seems with prime minister Modi, whose right-wing nationalist claims are seldom challenged.
Indeed, the timing is just right. With Xi recently reconfirmed as CPC General Secretary with seemingly untrammelled power, and Modi in power with an absolute parliamentary majority and immense popular support for a solution to the boundary dispute that both leaders could push through in the face of whatever domestic opposition might arise.
In practice, however, the Modi-Xi meeting will likely change little on the ground, except perhaps temporarily. Modi will also be unable to sustain a genuine ‘reset’ with China if he cannot revive the economy and stick consistently to a ‘neighbourhood first’ policy.
Nixon’s visit to China too came in an election year and the careful choreography of the visit led American journalist Dan Rather to call it ‘a re-elect Nixon campaign trip’. Nixon did go on to win the polls resoundingly. Modi might not come back with achievements of the world-changing significance that Nixon returned home with, but he will probably be happy to have his name engraved in the annals of India’s China policy.