SCEPTICISM has been expressed in some quarters about the Narendra Modi government's China policy in the backdrop of the “informal” Wuhan summit with President Xi Jinping. Congress party has charged that the Wuhan summit happened in the shadow of reports that Chinese construction activities continue unabated on their side of Doklam. Doubts have ranged from lack of specifics to outright capitulation in Prime Minister flying down to China at a short notice. The reported MEA circular asking top government functionaries to stay away from Tibet Day celebrations had also played some role in fuelling the speculation.
Can one attempt to read Modi's mind? Apart from his four visits as PM, Modi has been to China four more times as Chief Minister of Gujarat, memories of one of which – to the Three Gorges Dam – he shared with Xi in Wuhan. The number of visits by themselves should be proof that Modi sees in China an opportunity, not an enemy. It could be safely said that as a leader, Modi is fascinated with some aspects of Chinese achievements which he thinks can provide solutions to many developmental issues facing India. One of the many acronyms he coined in those days – SSS for Speed, Scale, and Skill – has a clear Chinese ring to it. I remember every time he would return to Gandhinagar from his China visit, he would ask his bureaucrats to hold a press conference about the takeaways and what all could get replicated in Gujarat.
Should it mean, as sceptics believe, that Modi might be overlooking the threat from China in focussing on the opportunity part of the relationship? Far from it. As India's actions in Doklam proved, when push comes to shove, the Modi administration is not found wanting. Or for that matter, the surgical strikes against Pakistan post the Uri terror attack underscored the need based muscularity that his government could show. On trade for example, after the United States, India has lodged highest number of complaints with the WTO against China.
But conflicts, both of trade and military kinds, have opportunity costs that tap into national resources. There comes a time in the history of nations, as indeed in lives of individuals, when one digression can swing the destiny between success and defeat. Imagine if Abraham Lincoln had not moderated the radical Republicans to get the South into the Union kickstarting the Reconstruction. The four decades between Reconstruction and Progressive eras were of intense churn in the United States aimed at reforming and transforming the society on a solid bedrock of industrialization and development without getting involved with the outside world. It was due to this national consolidation that by the time of WW-I, a single private American financial institution – the House of Morgans – was bankrolling the war effort of British and French governments combined. Reconciliation was one of the three pillars of the Progressive thought.
Roughly the same time as that of Reconstruction Era in the United States, Japan hit the road to Meiji Restoration opening up to the world for learning, shutting out all conflict, and fully focus on uplift of the national mass under the Emperor. The trigger might have been Japanese awe of the advanced American warships under Commodore Matthew Perry in 1865, but the Meiji period over next four decades underscored a nation's collective will to dream of a progressive future, which Japan continues to live in some ways even a century later.
China took a similar route under Deng Xiaoping, his pragmatism encapsulated in his dictum “hide your ambitions and disguise your claws.” Chinese detente with the United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and its subsequent rise over last four decades is recent history. Behind the self-assured brazenness of today's China is that period of focussing all energies on developing economically and not concern itself much with the world. The rise of China is a reality with which the whole world from America to Africa to Europe is struggling to grapple in its own ways. In case of India there's the added burden of a shared and disputed border.
At the development stage India is in, we need to keep our heads low and focus on the job of nation building brick by brick. Much like Japan, America, or China did in their restoration and reconstruction. Seen against this backdrop, contrary to a motivated perception about a perpetual 56-inch bravado, Modi has shown a streak of realism that should put him in line with a Deng. In readily agreeing to fly down to Wuhan, Modi might have only borrowed a leaf out of the Chinese book. It only helps that in an election year avoiding a stand-off with China might have electoral premium attached too.