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Modi in China: Shift The Discourse

By P. Stobdan, IDSA-Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, 14 May 2015

India called it a major diplomatic victory when China agreed to pull back 750 PLA soldiers engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball situation at Chumar. The PLA may still be nibbling at Indian Territory in Eastern Ladakh, and it does so from a position of strength. Beijing has recently expressed the “undeniable fact” of the existence of a “huge dispute” with India.

Against this backdrop, to expect the burgeoning economic engagement and trade relations to serve as leverage in settling the longstanding boundary issue would be a mistake. When Prime Minister Modi visits Beijing, mere symbolism and the pursuit of the economic agenda are unlikely to provide enduring results. The issues mainly stem from geopolitics and strategic mistrust. The question, therefore, is whether Modi can make a fundamental shift and find a common strategic ground with China. For too long, India has recklessly followed the ‘containing China’ attitude, without understanding what it means or working towards actualizing it. Implementing the idea is obviously difficult; even catching up with China would take decades. A realistic assessment is, therefore, necessary without getting carried away by what the West says.

Modi’s visit will assume greater significance only if he were to make it his mission to change the India-China discourse metaphysically in India’s favour. The time for that has now come. Rethinking our approach to China must start with two basic premises. Firstly, the casting of China as a villain in Asia becomes inane when Beijing has achieved integration not only with all regional systems of Asia but also with markets in America, Europe and Africa. Some may grudgingly deny it but even our friend Russia is pivoting towards China. America’s ties with China are a matter of great-power politics; hence a complex issue. But we can be sure that the West would play on Indian sentiment to sustain India-China competition. What may happen in the distant future is something that one cannot say at present. India should not waste time thinking about limiting China’s rise now.