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Five issues that will top Xi's agenda

By Srikanth Kondapalli
September 16, 2014 10:57 IST
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Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi JinpingChinese President Xi Jinping has suggested the five thrust areas to improve relations with India. It is likely all these issues, in addition to the points raised by Xi at the BRICS summit, will be part of the joint declaration at the end of his visit to India, says Srikanth Kondapalli.

Xi Jinping is no stranger to India, having visited it in the early 1990s as the party secretary (equivalent roughly to a chief minister of an Indian state) of the rich coastal Fujian province. As vice-president, Xi visited the sub-continent by making a visit to Bangladesh a few years ago.

Today, President Xi represents the second largest economy in the world, having centralised power -- President since March 2013; General Secretary of the Communist Party and chairman of the Central Military Commission since October 2012; and Chairman of the National Security Commission since March.

Yet, even as he had consolidated his power base, Xi is seized with a number of domestic and international challenges and 'strategic opportunities.' China's economy is relatively slowing down with rising labour costs, environmental issues and the impending ageing of the population.

Uighur resistance to Han migration in Xinjiang is mounting resulting in a spate of violent incidents recently. While the United States had announced a rebalancing strategy in the Asia-Pacific, it is increasingly bogged down with Syria and Iraq.

China now needs to re-locate its manufacturing sector in countries which have less labour costs, explore areas of high but sustainable returns on its investments, in addition to a 'common platform' on international political and security issues. India has several obvious niche areas that China could tap during this visit.

After becoming the new leader of China, Xi revamped China's foreign and security policies towards a 'new type of major power relations' with the United States in June 2013. Xi also initiated the twin Silk Roads in the continental and maritime domains in September and October 2013 to counter the US rebalance in Asia-Pacific and also assert China's position in the region. In May, he proposed a new security concept for Asia as a whole with Asia for Asians slogan. India figures marginally in this grand scheme.

Before embarking on his first overseas visit after becoming president of China on March 19, 2013, Xi stated to the Press Trust of India, the five thrust areas towards India. Xi suggested that both should enhance strategic communications between the leaderships to avoid misperceptions and miscalculations.

His predecessor Hu Jintao met then prime minister Manmohan Singh nearly 30 times in a decade at various bilateral and multilateral fora. Xi intends to evolve a similar pattern with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The two leaders have already met at Fortaleza on July 14 at the BRICS meeting (where the 'strategic communication' mantra was repeated) and have plans to meet at the G-20, East Asian Summits and other venues after the India visit.

By visiting Ahmedabad, Xi will evolve a personal guanxi (connection) with Modi, a factor that places China at a high pedestal with leaderships in Asia, Africa and South America. India, of course, needs to assess whether such meetings enhance national interests.

Secondly, Xi suggested to the PTI correspondent that both nations should enhance trade and investments and 'harness each other's comparative strengths.' Indeed, this issue has been the starkest in the bilateral relations with bilateral trade jumping from $264 million in 1991 to $66 billion in 2013, with a target to reach $100 billion by 2015. China had posted huge trade surpluses in the last decade.

Now, China intends to shift from the manufacturing sector to the services sector and the choice of India is obvious in this regard. This point was also raised at the bilateral interaction in Brazil.

Thirdly, Xi suggested enhancing strengthen cultural ties between the two countries. While both countries will celebrate the Year of Friendly Exchanges, less than 700,000 people visited each other, mainly 600,000 Indians to China and only 100,000 Chinese out of 92 million who visited abroad thought it fit to visit India last year. Both then need to do more in this regard.

The fourth issue Xi raised was actually the main and most explicit in outlining China's foreign policy priorities -- expanding coordination and collaboration in multilateral affairs. Indeed, since Nehru's times -- albeit with a brief interregnum after the 1962 border clashes -- leaderships in both countries have emphasised this point.

As countries which espoused independent foreign policy, China and India have viewed this aspect through various prisms -- multilateralism, multipolarity, no regime change, etc. Both recently contributed to the birth of the BRICS New Development Bank in the process. At Fortaleza, Xi went further by suggesting that both should 'join hands in setting global rules.'

However, the fifth point is the most contentious and tended to create fissures in the 'united front.' President Xi suggested that both India and China 'should accommodate each other's core concerns and properly handle problems.' This is in relation to the unresolved territorial dispute between the two countries. At Fortaleza, Xi re-formulated this aspect by suggesting that both countries should arrive at a 'negotiated settlement' of the territorial dispute -- suggesting to a give and take approach.

In addition to the above five points, interestingly Xi told Modi in Brazil that the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor should be advanced. Despite mentioning this issue in the Li Keqiang-Manmohan Singh joint statement of May 2013, Indians view this initiative with some reservation, if not suspicion. China's responses on the insurgency in northeast India will be the barometer for the progress of this corridor.

In addition, Xi surprised India by inviting it to join the proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, although its relation with the existing Asian Development Bank and others is not clarified.

It is likely all the five issues, in addition to the points raised by Xi at Fortaleza, will be part of the Joint Declaration between the two countries this week.

Srikanth Kondapalli is a professor in Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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