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Test of nerve

The visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India was overshadowed by a flare-up of tensions on the two countries’ disputed border – specifically, in Ladakh, where Chinese soldiers pushed forward in one place further towards the unquestioned Indian territory than they have earlier, and were resupplied from the air, indicating support from higher up for their endeavour. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have felt justifiably blindsided, especially since the red carpet was laid out for Mr Xi in every way. China has had a pattern of pushing at the border every time a senior political leader visits India; but this was on a larger scale than earlier, suggesting that the leadership there wants to take Mr Modi’s measure early on. It is not known what was said in private, but the prime minister did tackle the border disagreement at the joint press conference, and there were other welcome signs of push-back. After all, Mr Modi is of interest to the Chinese precisely because he embodies exactly what Mr Xi himself is – a strong, centralising force after a decade of consensus-based drift. For China, the use of regional aggression together with deeper economic engagement is a well-tested policy. India must not be taken by surprise again. Closer economic ties are, of course, in both countries’ interest. But they should not be seen as constraining India’s security-related decision-making, which is perhaps the intention of some in Beijing.

The economic engagement itself was on expected lines; it did not live up to the big numbers promised before the summit, but $ 100 billion of investment in five year was always an exercise in imagination rather than a realistic sum. Even the $ 20 billion being proposed must be scrutinised carefully. Too much of it is likely to be spent on special economic zones (SEZs) in Maharashtra and Gujarat, for example – as this newspaper has consistently argued, SEZs as a concept need to be re-examined in the light of their repeated failure to live up to expectations. The other grand proposals Mr Xi arrived with should also be taken with a pinch of salt. The grand plans for a “maritime Silk Route”, for example, were underlined by the Chinese leader’s decision to come to India as the last leg of a trip that also included Sri Lanka and the Maldives. In both those countries, in its backyard, India is being out-spent and out-lobbied by China. It is hard not to see the “maritime Silk Route”, therefore, as less a trade initiative and more as another security-related strategy for Beijing.

In spite of being overshadowed by events at the border, the visit cannot be called a failure, given that economic ties were deepened. Even more valuable is that it will have revealed to Mr Modi that while Beijing might have looked with friendly eyes on the chief minister of a trading Indian state, it will treat a prime minister with a commanding majority considerably differently. India’s foreign policy will have to recalibrate: under Mr Modi, a resurgent India is once again a “swing state” in the international order, and Delhi must use that to remind Beijing of the value of stable Indo-Chinese relations. And it must go the extra mile to demonstrate leadership in its own neighbourhood, or Beijing’s energetic new leaders will.

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