India and China Establishing Contact: Strengthening Ties


The recent visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to India has unambiguously signalled Beijing’s eagerness to quickly engage with India. But even though both India and China seek areas of mutually beneficial economic cooperation, enormous challenges confront New Delhi and Beijing, and both nations will have to find ways to cooperate if they are intent on developing friendly bilateral ties, insists Jayadeva Ranade

China’s communist leadership was quick off the mark and sent Wang Yi, its foreign minister – designated for the occasion as a special envoy – to New Delhi as the first high-ranking visitor from a major power to meet India’s newly-elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

During his two-day (June 8-9) visit to New Delhi, Wang Yi, who led a 10-member delegation, was received by India’s new Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj on June 8, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Pranab Mukherjee the following day. Wang Yi came with primarily an economic agenda. His visit was essentially intended to assess the views of the new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government and prepare for the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping expected to materialise in October-November 2014.

India’s ‘Nixon Moment’

India’s general elections were closely tracked in China, where Modi’s campaign attracted particular attention. Chinese official media reports observed that Modi represents a right-wing political party and, taking note of his utterances on the campaign trail and visit to Arunachal Pradesh, anticipated that India’s stand on China would harden in the event of his victory. Many senior researchers in Chinese government think-tanks, though, differed. They were of the view that Modi’s statements during the campaign were, for the most part, political posturing and India’s policy towards China would remain substantially unchanged.

Articles in China’s state-controlled media since Modi’s resounding election victory, however, sought to portray that India-China relations would improve. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s telephone call to Prime Minister Modi within three days of his victory and emphasis that ‘China is willing to enhance mutual trust’, together with his expressing confidence that India would grow under Modi’s leadership, reinforce this. Nonetheless, they also hint that the previous BJP-led NDA government’s stance regarding China continues to have resonance in Beijing, which harbours some apprehensions.

Meanwhile, the Chinese media played up the economic potential of the relationship and recalled that Modi, as Gujarat’s chief minister, had visited China on four occasions and that the bulk of Chinese investment in India was in Gujarat. The Chinese media has created an expectation that Modi is focussed on the economy and ‘ready to do business with China’. Some reports compared Modi  to US President Nixon and, hinting that a 180 degree turn around in policy in favour of China was a possibility, suggested that his ‘right wing inclination might  create India’s ‘Nixon moment’.   

China’s authoritative official news agency ‘Xinhua’, however, depicted the views of China’s communist leadership more realistically. In a lengthy Chinese-language despatch on May 29, it asserted that Modi has no other option but to pursue a policy of economic cooperation with China, as China is far ahead of India with four times its GDP. It said that India has to recognise China’s economic and military superiority in Asia and Modi would perforce have to accommodate China not out of choice or inclination, but out of necessity. Xinhua, incidentally, is the news source that the powerful Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee (CC)’s Propaganda Department instructs the Chinese media to use for reporting on sensitive topics.  

First High-Level Visit

The backdrop for Wang Yi’s visit was the increasing tension in the South China Sea, particularly with Vietnam and Japan. India has good ties with both and has made no secret of its desire for a closer relationship with Japan that encompasses a substantive economic and defence-related component. Improving Indo-US ties have for some years been a matter of concern for Beijing.

India’s new prime minister also moved with alacrity and, within days of taking office, outlined India’s interest in what could best be described as its strategic geographic neighbourhood. In doing so, Prime Minister Modi identified the areas where Indian and Chinese interests could potentially bump against each other.

Economic issues, where interests of both nations converge, predictably dominated Wang Yi’s brief. Reports emanating from Beijing mention that China is considering investing substantially in the development of India’s infrastructure and economic analysts assess that with the slowdown in China’s economy, Beijing is keen on tapping the vast new Indian market. Investing in India would additionally provide China a profitable option for its fiscal reserves. Specifics are notably absent, however, except for the mention of a ‘Bullet’ train in which Beijing feels Japan has lost interest. There has not been any authoritative indication of the quantum of investment contemplated by Beijing.

A range of topics were discussed during the 3-hour luncheon meeting between India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Wang Yi. Economic issues would have included infrastructure investment; ‘the new Silk route’, a project that Xi Jinping has taken personal charge of and which is an integral part of China’s new assertive policy of ‘Peripheral Diplomacy’; the ‘old Silk Road’ or BCIM, also known as the Kunming Initiative; and the ‘Maritime Silk Route’, for which Beijing has started co-opting partners by initiating a major push at the 18th Party Congress in 2012.

Contentious Issues of Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity

China’s territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh and J&K, border intrusions, the troublesome issue of stapled visas, etc. were discussed. India’s stance on issues such as the presence of Tibetans and the Dalai Lama were subtly signalled earlier with the invitation extended by the BJP to Lobsang Sangay, the leader of the Tibetans-in-exile, to Prime Minister Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. The Tibet issue re-surfaced in the form of protests staged by Tibetans in New Delhi against the Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit. China too, in a by now predictable action on the eve of important visits, reminded India of outstanding bilateral issues, and barely a couple of days prior to Wang Yi’s arrival in Delhi, formally protested the presence of Lobsang Sangay at the swearing-in ceremony.

Drawing a clear line between economic engagement and issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity, however, China showed it had no intention of backing off from its claims on Indian territories in Arunachal Pradesh or J&K. Hosting a press conference prior to his departure on June 9, Wang Yi commented on the subject of stapled visas. He asserted that China had unilaterally in a ‘flexible’ ‘goodwill gesture’ resorted to this ‘special arrangement’ to facilitate the ‘outbound and overseas travel’ of the people inhabiting territory disputed over ‘big parts’. Hinting that the ‘concession’ could be withdrawn, he said: “If this is acceptable to Indian side, it could be continued in the future as it does not undermine or compromise our respective positions on the border question.”   

In any case, Wang Yi as only a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s Central Committee (CC) is outranked in the powerful Leading Small Group on Foreign Affairs by representatives of the PLA and security apparatus, and has little influence on matters concerning China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. He would not have been authorised to comment substantively on border or related issues.  

Time for New Thinking and New Conclusions

Wang Yi’s visit has nevertheless unambiguously signalled Beijing’s eagerness to quickly engage with India. Modi and Xi Jinping both have the reputation of being strong, decisive leaders with a focus on improving the economy and well-being of their people. While Modi won a resounding popular mandate at the general elections, Xi Jinping has emerged as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

The Party’s authoritative theoretical magazine Qiu Shi (Seeking Truth), described Chinese President Xi Jinping as one of ‘China’s greatest communist leaders’ and said he had put forward ‘new thinking, new views and new conclusions’. Xi Jinping recently advocated a new security vision for Asia. In a keynote speech at the recent fourth summit meeting of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in

Asia (CICA) in Shanghai, he stressed that Asians must themselves play a role in building security, thereby rejecting interference from outside the region. This summit is viewed as a multilateral platform for China to play a more active role in the wider Asian community.

In India, the Modi government will try to re-adjust India’s China policy. There will be an element of firmness in handling of the border issue facilitated by Modi’s majority in parliament. By taking the initiative to invite neighbouring Heads of Government, Modi demonstrated his keenness to set the foreign policy agenda, outlined India’s strategic neighbourhood and its interest in these nations. In the context of India-China relations, it outlines areas of overlapping national interests. The move is being seen by many as a riposte to China’s encirclement of India. Modi’s follow through visit to Bhutan, a country where India’s strategic, economic and military interests intersect, clarifies that India’s engagement with its neighbours would be more intense than that of the previous government.

While both nations will certainly seek areas of mutually beneficial economic cooperation, enormous challenges confront New Delhi and Beijing. These centre on food and water, both fundamental issues impacting the livelihood and survival of the people. Till now Beijing has made negligible forward movement in responding to India’s requests, but ways to cooperate will have to be found if both countries are intent on developing friendly bilateral ties.

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Jayadeva Ranade is a Member of the National Security Advisory Board and former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. He is President of the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy. Views expressed are personal.

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