Xi's South Asian sojournChina understands that its ambition to be the global superpower will not be easily achieved without taking its immediate neighbours into confidence.
Following a two-day informal summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a two-day state visit to Nepal, Chinese President Xi Jinping has officially recorded four days' outcome of his diplomatic engagement in South Asia. Symbolically, this typifies the scale of investment China would venture and extract output thereof. The South Asian sojourn by President Xi undoubtedly marks a significant departure from how China strategises to take the entire sub-Himalayan region onboard on its fairy flight to be the ultimate global superpower, and at the same time, outlines China's diplomatic modus operandi under the overarching policy of 'socialism with Chinese characteristics'.
Xi's two-pillar political narrative of 'peace and stability for progress' has been consistent since he took office in 2013. This is apparently meant to assuage the apprehensions of nations like India in light of the geometric rise of China's economic and strategic might, mainly over the last two decades. The summit diplomacy of Xi and Modi also demonstrated how bilateral relations could be steered by putting highly contentious issues on the back burner.
The Xi-Modi summit had indeed been a pressing need for both sides, economically and strategically. China is already India’s largest trade partner. In 2017-18, Chinese exports to India stood at $89.6 billion while Indian exports to China was only $16.6 billion. Meaning there is a trade deficit of almost $63 billion. Exports from India in the following year 2018-19 barely improved. New Delhi needed an immediate dialogue on this as evidenced by the post summit statement. There was equal urgency on the Chinese side as its exports to India declined by almost $20 billion in a single year, 2018-19. Besides, as China's trade war with the US shows no sign of abatement, the former needs new markets to keep its massive production facilities running.
Strategically, China understands that its ambition to be the global superpower will not be easily achieved without taking its immediate neighbours, particularly a huge country in every respect like India, into a reasonable degree of confidence. For Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it was necessary to demonstrate that China is not unequivocally in support of the Pakistani position after he revoked the special status of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir last August to the utmost displeasure of Pakistan and China. Also, Indian discontent over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor financed under the Belt and Road Initiative of China is public knowledge. But both Xi and Modi very maturely prevented these contentious irritants from overshadowing their cardinal agenda of discussing 'long-term and strategic issues of global and regional importance' at the summit.
Instead, India accorded an elaborately grand welcome to the Chinese president, unprecedented since the two countries went to war in 1962. To create a new constructive atmosphere, Prime Minister Modi also effectively defied a section of Lutyens' Delhi intelligentsia that thrives on the anti-China 'industry' that has constructed a constant narrative of China being an unfathomable enemy. More importantly, China's focus was on creating an oriental identity from civilisational synergy. The post-summit official statement from the Chinese side stated that the two countries 'agreed to promote exchanges and mutual learning among civilisations to achieve joint development and prosperity' and 'to inject a more lasting driving force into the development of bilateral ties and continue to produce new glory for Asian civilisations'.
According to the statement from the Indian side, the two leaders decided to establish a High-Level Economic and Trade Dialogue mechanism with the objective of achieving enhanced trade and commercial relations, and encourage mutual investments for manufacturing partnership. Also, although India has refrained from officially joining the Belt and Road Initiative, it is the second largest promoter of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank which is now one of the two major financing vehicles for the Belt and Road Initiative (the other being the Silk Road Fund), and the largest recipient of more than $2 billion in loans from the bank for about a dozen infrastructure, energy and green investment projects.
In a nutshell, China-India relations had long needed to create a new pragmatic narrative that realistically reflected economic interdependence and geostrategic inalienability. The second Xi-Modi informal summit in Chennai, following the first in Wuhan, China in April 2018, is, therefore, significant to the emerging sub-continental geopolitics of South Asia. As is obvious, the future of the entire region depends on the dynamics and chemistry of relations between these two global giants. It is more so for Nepal as these two are its only adjoining neighbours.
In theory, Nepal as a sovereign nation-state is free to conduct its foreign policy independently. Euphemisms apart, when it comes to Nepal's neighbourhood diplomacy, maintaining a balance between China and India in practice has historically been challenging. Nepal's participation in the Belt and Road Initiative, potential trans-Himalayan rail connectivity and increased economic engagement with the northern neighbour, for example, have always been cause for (security) concerns for India. Nepal's proposal to form Nepal-India-China trilateralism in the greater regional interest is so far dashed by (perceived?) strategic competition between these two giants. But President Xi's recent tour of India and Nepal in a single loop rekindles hopes of not only possible trilateralism, but also of a more cooperative than competitive perspective of both neighbours when it comes to dealing with Nepal.
Xi's nuanced messages
The historic state visit by the Chinese president after a long gap of 23 years, during which shifts in global power poles have seen a sea change, is important beyond any adjectives. The grant assistance and one and a half dozen cooperation agreements signed during Xi's visit also have their own significance, depending on how Nepal will be able to execute them.
But, above all these, Xi's three highly nuanced messages to Nepal's political leadership are perhaps the key to Nepal's future prosperity and well-being. One, accomplish what you promise by constant pursuit of the goals. Two, Chinese diplomatic priorities in dealing with Nepal will not alter on the basis of the ideology of the incumbent government here but on its performance. And, third, China was not built into a modern superpower just by following orthodox communist rhetoric, but through timely initiation of appropriate policy reforms, adoption of technology and relentless hard work.