Seeking the Nixon Spirit
He made a vow to visit China during his first year as prime minister and is fulfilling it, by a whisker. He reciprocates a visit by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, who came to India in September. Unusually, Mr Xi stopped off in Gujarat before he made his way to Delhi. In turn, before he goes to Beijing Mr Modi will visit Shaanxi province, birthplace of Mr Xi’s father, a comrade of Mao Zedong’s.
Both leaders are the first in their respective countries to have been born after the second world war, with a willingness to try fresh approaches. Both like to project an image of manly strength, keen on bold strokes in policymaking and ready to do business. And at home both leaders dominate foreign affairs along with much else. And so some analysts are looking to see indications of a breakthrough between the two giants that warily eye each other across a 4,000-kilometre (2,500-mile) disputed border in the Himalayas, scene of a brief if nasty war in 1962.
In that context, the name of Richard Nixon is never far from the lips of Indian strategists. Like Nixon, Mr Modi is a right-winger, a nationalist with form—for instance, in promising to be tough on China (as well as on Pakistan, China’s ally in South Asia). He is, in other words, probably better placed than previous Indian leaders to find a compromise that would settle the border dispute and make it acceptable back home. In conversation Mr Modi repeatedly emphasises the scale of his election victory last year. In international affairs, he implies, it gives him unusual latitude.
On the Chinese side, some also discern a potential for better bilateral relations. China’s main preoccupation is maritime: over disputed claims in the South China Sea and rumbling disputes with Japan. China might prefer to keep India, a rising naval power, away from such confrontations. In January Mr Modi issued a striking joint statement with America’s president, Barack Obama, declaring an interest in ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, way to India’s east. A senior Indian official talks of India having a legitimate interest because a Chinese “noose” is tightening on its friends and trading partners around the South China Sea.
China’s maritime fixation underscores the appeal of lessening worries over its terrestrial borders—at least that is the argument that some make in Beijing for seeking an agreement on the disputed border. In recent months the Indian government has talked of doubling the number of Indian soldiers near the Chinese border, and of building railways and new airports in the state of Arunachal Pradesh (which some in China call South Tibet). China does not want to be distracted by military challenges in the mountains. It adds up to some hopeful thinking about a deal.
Yet the reality is probably less encouraging. India’s senior political figures and diplomats give no indication of anything out of the ordinary under way in terms of preparing for substantive border talks or of coming up with new mechanisms for dealing with the dispute. Mr Modi’s travels, which will also take in Mongolia and South Korea, will emphasise economic co-operation. More trade and some Chinese investment in Indian manufacturing are the expected outcomes.
What is more, the trip will also have to be about patching up relations after Mr Xi’s visit last year ended in tatters. While he was in India, Chinese soldiers crossed the disputed border, camping in remote mountain territory that Indian soldiers said was clearly theirs. In private Mr Modi was furious about being humiliated by his guest. But, intriguingly, Mr Xi may have felt humiliated too. Some military observers have been told that the commanding officer of those border guards was summarily sacked. It will be enough next week to avoid confrontation and mishaps. The Nixon moment, if there is to be one, will have to come later.