Originally Published 2014-09-06 00:00:00 Published on Sep 06, 2014
Not since the era of Indira Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping, perhaps even since that of Nehru and Mao, have India and China been led by such dynamic and forceful politicians as Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping. These leaders are due to meet later this month in Xi's first official visit to India.
Gearing up for the Modi-Xi meeting

Not since the era of Indira Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping, perhaps even since that of Nehru and Mao, have India and China been led by such dynamic and forceful politicians. Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping are due to meet later this month in Xi's first official visit to India and the pair's first substantive diplomatic encounter since the BRICS Summit in July. Both have set out to be transformative leaders, capable of projecting their countries to success in the Asian century. Expectations for this visit are predictably high. As politicians, the two leaders have a great deal in common. Both are charismatic figures in systems long blighted by bureaucratic inertia. Their platforms have promised economic reform at home and raised expectations of nationalist confidence, perhaps even assertiveness, abroad. Both entered office with massive expectations of change: Xi in November 2012 after what many dubbed a political 'lost decade' under Hu Jintao, and Prime Minister Modi just this May, taking on the mantle of leadership from the widely maligned UPA2. Each leader began with a focus on shaping up their bureaucracies: Xi by launching the most intense anti-corruption purge in decades and a campaign against official extravagance, Modi by attempting to energize Delhi's corridors of power and provide direction to what he has described as ?many governments functioning within a government.?

Their personal backgrounds could hardly be more different. While Modi rose to the prime ministerial office after starting off as a tea boy in rural Gujarat, Xi is literally a child of China's Communist Party system. The son of revolutionary elder, Xi Zhongxun, a contemporary of Mao Zedong's who fell out of favor in the Cultural Revolution, Xi grew up largely in the sheltered milieu of the Beijing political elite. As a teenager in the Cultural Revolution, Xi was sent to the Chinese countryside in Shaanxi, along with millions of other Chinese youths, and after studying engineering in Beijing and working briefly in the capital, he effectively sent himself down again by applying for a Party job in the rural province of Hebei.

Despite their radically different starting points, both leaders rose to national prominence by using provincial politics to build national political personalities. The next stages in Xi's career took him to provincial government in China's wealthy coastal provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang. Xi diligently rose through the ranks in Fujian, rising to the post of provincial governor. In 2002, he got his big break and was appointed Party Secretary of Zhejiang, China's most free market province. Just as Modi used Gujarat as a base to test his ideas about development and leadership, presenting the 'Gujarat Model' as a path for all of India, Xi used his time in Zhejiang to develop his own distinctive brand. He presented himself as an economic reformer, but one who respected and indeed often theorized in terms of Marxist doctrine. His speeches and writings identified him as a supporter of modernizing the Communist Party apparatus, but doing so using well-worn techniques pioneered by Mao including ?self-criticism? and the ?mass line.? Modi's ideas won him a decisive mandate from India's 814-million strong electorate, Xi's the blessing of the secretive 'selectorate' that appoints the Communist Party leadership.

Now in office, the two leaders face each other on the world stage. Both have promised national rejuvenation. Xi has justified his policies in terms of a ?Chinese dream,? which he defines as ?the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people.? Modi has asked to be judged by ?one mission and target: taking the nation forward.? Both were also rumored - before entering office - to be foreign policy hawks.

Xi has continued and elevated previous trends of muscular assertiveness in China's neighborhood, including along the Indian border. Modi gave some signals of a tougher stance early on, referring to Chinese ?bullying? in his election campaign. In practice, we know little yet about his attitude toward territorial disputes. What is clear by now is that Modi is pursuing a remarkably activist foreign policy. He used his first trips abroad to shore up relations with the crucial buffer states of Nepal and Bhutan on the contested India-China border. Most recently, his visit to Japan saw the India-Japan relationship upgraded to a ?special? strategic partnership, with cooperation on a wide range of issue areas - including defence.

There is the potential for Modi and Xi to clash. Potential tensions run deeper than the pair's strong personalities. They relate to the two powers' competing nationalisms, long-standing border dispute, and a history of strategic mistrust fuelled by a profound lack of mutual understanding. The business relationship remains weak, tourism and other people-to-people exchanges are underdeveloped, and there is a lack of academic and governmental expertise on both sides. Indeed, it is hard to think of two other powers in the world that share so many historical and geographical ties, but remain so fundamentally foreign to each other.

In practice, a clash is unlikely, at least at first. At root, both leaders share a vision of national greatness and rejuvenation powered by reform-driven economic growth. Their ability to realize their promises and indeed the success of their political legacies depends more than anything on domestic economic progress.

For India, China is a critical economic player. The Modi government will be looking for Chinese investment and technology in areas where China has long excelled - especially infrastructure. China's development model is also prominent in discussions about India's future from areas as diverse as telecoms, transportation, and financial inclusion. Modi travelled to China several times as first minister of Gujarat, primarily to seek Chinese investment. He will likely continue to focus on economic diplomacy as prime minister. His ability to deliver at home is partly dependent on this.

India has never featured at the top of diplomatic priorities in Beijing. Threat perceptions between the powers have always been high asymmetrical. Beijing just does not feel threatened by India, except occasionally in Tibet, in anywhere near the same way as India feels threatened by China. It also didn't - until recently - give much priority to India economically. This is beginning to change. The India market is increasingly recognized as a priority by the Chinese government and Chinese investors. India is also, gradually, beginning to be seen as a global power worth reckoning with by analysts in Beijing. India will necessarily play a major part in many of Beijing's regional diplomatic initiatives, including the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt. Strong links with India will also help China to develop the economically underdeveloped provinces of Southwest China.

Perhaps Mr. Modi's most effective card in navigating India's relationship with China, however, is the country's developing relationship with Japan. The substantive outcomes of his recent visit will put pressure on Xi's visit to deliver equally impressive results. It will also raise his profile in Beijing and provide him with leverage in regional geopolitics. Pushed too far, however, it will likely irritate Beijing, distracting from the more constructive economic exchange from which both sides hope to benefit.

(Peter Martin is a Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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