Global Times | July 20, 2014 19:33
When India and China meet, the world watches” were the words Chinese President Xi Jinping used to capture the interest generated by his first meeting with India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Whether the world was watching or not, the public in both countries keenly followed the first interaction between the two Asian leaders on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in the Brazilian town of Fortaleza.
The meeting passed the initial hurdle of establishing camaraderie between the two leaders. The images and videos that have found their way across the news and social media portrayed a favorable body language and easy chemistry. That the meeting, slated for 40 minutes, lasted nearly twice as long also signals the importance both leaders attached to this engagement.
The meeting can be captured in two words: pragmatic optimism.
That Modi chose to address the contentious border issue in his very first meeting demonstrated a sense of political realism. The Indian leader understood that such a vital element of the partnership cannot be swept under the carpet, even as the BRICS summit itself was gearing up to announce some very positive outcomes.
That Xi also chose to underscore the need for finding an early solution demonstrates their acknowledgement of the negative implications of this lingering border dispute on the larger relationship.
Both countries surely realize that any further economic integration will inevitably hit the political wall if an early solution to this legacy dispute is not discovered.
While it may seem an onerous task, a degree of progress has already been made.
During the previous decade, a great deal of effort has been invested by the empowered special representatives to discover a mutually acceptable and creative solution. In fact, those in the know suggest that it is not impossible to finalize a settlement. What was lacking was the political leadership capable of implementing the same.
With two strong leaders, there exists a golden opportunity to move beyond the border defense cooperation agreement signed last year to one that is conclusive and sustainable.
However, the serious nature of the conversations around the border issue did not deter the two strong leaders from making a strong and optimistic case for deeper economic cooperation and coordination.
The leaders discussed an enhanced role for China in the Indian economic story. The new Indian leadership seems ready to invite large Chinese investments in industrial parks, infrastructure and other key sectors of the economy. At the same time, India seeks reciprocity from China by allowing more efficient and larger market access to Indian goods and services.
Both of these measures would help balance the current large trade deficit in favor of China.
The convergence in the positions of the two countries on most global economic and political governance issues helped the BRICS arrive at an acceptable framework for the new development bank and contingent reserve arrangement. This growing proximity was specifically established when Xi invited India to the APEC summit later this year.
These are early days for Xi and Modi. There are plenty of hurdles that will need to be managed. There is a whole universe of professional naysayers on both sides and in other parts of the world that will exploit negative developments.
Both leaders will have to carry along their security and strategic establishments with them; not the easiest groups to handle. They also have to manage and guide the public mood in favor of more robust ties with each other.
The recent interaction emphasized people-to-people relations and tourism, and perhaps that is one of the ways to do this.
But the crucial factor that can help transform this bilateral is Modi himself. For the first time, the Chinese will interact with an Indian leader who can be politically strong in safeguarding India’s sovereign interests, while at the same time being very welcoming in embracing China economically.
The author is vice president and senior fellow with Observer Research Foundation in Delhi. firstname.lastname@example.org