Dr Henry Kissinger, master of international relations and lifetime student of its practice, writes that the long-serving foreign minister of the Soviet Union, Andrei Kosygin, would spend an hour each morning poring over a world map. It was wise investment of a veteran’s intellect at a time when the Soviet Union was still a superpower.
We retain, subconsciously, a schoolboy’s attitude to an atlas, as a static fact, vulnerable only to some cataclysmic shift of history. But policymakers know that the contours of power, and fluid lines of influence, are in continuous motion. Foreign policy is more akin to the management of underwater and overwater currents than a field trip through designated parcels of land.
The great challenge that Delhi and Beijing face today is how to steer their difficult relationship towards a mutually beneficial destination. This is not yet a journey to a grand horizon. That may yet happen, but will take a while. The pragmatic way is to ensure that every stop is something better than the last station.
Over two meetings, replete with much-crafted symbolism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping have done much to create a momentum that had got lost in the shallows of indolence and perhaps indifference. They defined the present in their own ways. Doing nothing, said India’s PM, was not an option, nor was reversal a good idea, the only thing that made sense was forward movement. President Xi quoted Chairman Mao Zedong: 10,000 years is too long, we must seize the day, seize the hour.
Can we seize anything without staring long and hard at the map? The border map is fraught with an intense history and therefore essentially fragile. India and China have addressed their boundary disputes with some degree of maturity, ensuring that any confrontation does not escalate into conflict. But this is a Band-Aid solution for a deep wound, which is why it frays so easily and prickles rise when summits run their course. There has to be pace and direction during talks in order to take them out of the clutch of vested interests.
Pakistan has an obvious vested interest, and Beijing has an active Pakistan lobby, which employs familiar methods of provocation. China has invested heavily in Pakistan as a strategic ally south of the Himalayas and is now seeking to bolster its protectorate by lifting Pakistan’s sagging economy. But at long last Beijing is ready to acknowledge, in its dialogue with India, that its secessionist troubles in Xinjiang get aid and abetment from forces within Pakistan. China has also ameliorated its Pak-centric objection to India’s claim for permanent membership in the UN Security Council.
The second significant layer of the India-China axis is economic. The cost to India, through a massive trade deficit, is unsustainable. If the gap cannot be filled by Indian exports, then there has to be some reciprocal investment by China. Since 2000, China has enjoyed the pleasures of roaming on a one-way street. It has contributed less than half a per cent to foreign investment in India. China has put $10 billion on the table, but that is only half the story. The Chinese have at long last opened the gates of the world to their people. Outward tourism is booming. With a Beijing prod, India can become a prime destination. The electronic visa facility makes sense in this light.
The third layer is as important, without being equally quantifiable. An armchair optimist might conclude that the rapport between PM Modi and President Xi is today warmer than between India and China. Personality matters because partnerships are built on trust. The great harmony between India and China began to wither after Premier Zhou En-lai started to resent Jawaharlal Nehru’s patronage at the Bandung conference in 1955; within five years it had given way to antagonism laced with personal rancour.
You can be sure that when Modi and Xi huddled at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian, with only their translators for company, they had built up enough trust to discuss a few track routes for intractable issues. Xi quoted Mao’s dictum with a nod to history. Chairman Mao threw that line into the wind during the historic talks with President Richard Nixon in 1972, while pointing to Kissinger as the man who could shape the opportunity. Mao’s subsequent sentences were more revealing, says Kissinger in his book On China: “I think that, generally speaking, people like me sound a lot of big cannons. [Zhou laughs.] That is, things like ‘the whole world should unite and defeat imperialism, revisionism, and all reactionaries, and establish socialism’.” At which Mao laughed uproariously.
Mao’s message was that ideology is best kept out of bilateral relations. You can always live with an obstacle by going around it. China believed it could do business with Nixon in 1972. It believes it can do business with Modi in 2015.