Just as Prime Minister Narendra Modi walked up to the museum in Wuhan during his two-day China visit, a smiling President Xi Jinping was waiting to receive him. Xi then gave him a nugget of critical information. No Chinese president has ever accorded reception to a visiting Head of State outside Beijing. “I did it twice for you,” Xi is said to have told Modi.
Of course, one didn’t have to be an expert reader of body language to figure out that both the leaders were perfectly comfortable during all their interactions. And they discussed the entire gamut of issues that concern India and China. For instance, the talks ranged from China’s One Road One Belt (OBOR) project and India’s candidature for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to the revival of cultural and spiritual connect between the two great nations.
Sources say that the talks were marked by a candour and openness that was unprecedented in diplomacy. Irrespective of the content of the talks that may trigger speculation in diplomatic circles, there is little doubt that Modi carried with him a special brand of ‘personal diplomacy’ that clearly shed the “hesitations of history” in India-China relations.
Obviously, this level of personal comfort with Xi was not achieved overnight. There is a unique history behind it. Modi’s acquaintance with China is not new. During his pracharak days in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), he undertook a pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar along with a delegation. Those who accompanied him admit that he was most punctilious among the delegates, adhering to every ritual and tour plan, while observing closely the spiritual and cultural aspects of India’s relations with China. That trip made an indelible impression of China on Modi’s mind.
That impression was cemented when he visited China twice as Gujarat chief minister and invited Chinese industries to invest in the state. He was quite impressed by China’s rapid growth and had useful interactions with top functionaries of the country’s government. Although as chief minister, he did not have the opportunity to meet the then Chinese president or premier, he was accorded a special reception for shedding his hesitation in inviting Chinese industries to Gujarat.
But two events after Modi’s ascension as the country’s prime minister in 2014 developed a warmth between him and Xi. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi was the first one to visit him immediately after his victory. This was followed by a congratulatory call from Xi. Sources say that the first conversation between the two leaders was particularly interesting as Xi talked about Modi’s hometown of Vadnagar and the region’s connect with his own hometown of Xia’n. When Modi invited him to India, Xi was learnt to have expressed his desire to visit Modi’s hometown. That was the background against which Xi’s first visit to India was planned. In spite of the burden of historical hesitation over China, Modi played a perfect host and displayed his bonhomie with the Chinese president quite openly.
That bonhomie was, however, overshadowed by the simultaneous incursion of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into Chumar village along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). During Xi’s sojourn in Ahmedabad in 2014, Modi raised the issue, subtly yet directly with Xi wondering if there was “dissonance between China’s political leadership and the army”. He pointed out that high-profile bilateral visits to China or India were often marred by such incursions by the PLA. Xi promised to look into the matter and on his return, he addressed it quite deftly to the satisfaction of Modi. That’s how Xi and Modi built trust in each other.
Although relations came under significant strain on the issues related to China’s reluctance to designate Pakistan’s Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) as a terrorist organisation in the UN or barring India’s entry to NSG, Modi’s decision to challenge the PLA at Doka La in 2017 sent an unambiguous message that India cannot be pushed around. Apparently, India held its ground at the standoff but avoided the rhetoric to which the Chinese foreign ministry and the State-sponsored press resorted. A day after the Doka La standoff was resolved, Modi’s participation in the BRICS meeting at Xiamen in September last year was announced.
And after his interaction with Xi there, he returned home with the impression that India-China relations would acquire a new equilibrium after the Communist Party of China (CPC) Congress which would re-elect him not only as president but also establish him arguably as the most powerful Chinese leader after Mao Zedong. The CPC saw the removal of two military generals — one of whom was close to Xi’s predecessor Hu Jin Tao — and ensured Xi’s total control over the military.
It was certainly no coincidence that the government not only toned down its rhetoric on China, but also mollified Beijing on the question of the exiled Tibetan leader Dalai Lama.
Apparently, the government took a pragmatic view of not showing a red rag to China by provocatively using Dalai Lama’s name. At the same time, back-channel diplomacy was used to set the stage for a successful two-day informal summit that marked a new beginning in the two countries’ relations. Just before the prime minister’s visit, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and her team did the groundwork.
Of course, Modi’s proclivity for “personal diplomacy” is not inconsistent with the practices of international diplomacy. During World War II, Winston Churchill was believed to be a strong votary of this practice and carried on his “personal diplomacy combined with indefatigable self-belief” to borrow the phrase of scholars Alan P Dobson and Steve Marsh in their research paper on ‘Churchill and Anglo American special relationship‘. In Churchill’s case, his personal diplomacy was primarily focused on winning over US president Franklin D Roosevelt on whom he famously divulged, “no lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of (Roosevelt)”. However, Modi’s task is becoming more difficult as the world is getting increasingly multipolar with powerful leaders emerging in their own right in different parts of the globe.