A lot is being said and written about Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ongoing informal talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the picturesque Wuhan city in central-eastern China's Hubei province. There is clearly no fence-sitting over this summit-level meeting as an equal number of people and establishments are against the thinking that it helps the two countries' strained relations much as those who consider it as a ground-breaking occasion.
The problem with the perception of India-China ties, particularly in India, is that people look it through the prisms of either good or bad. Analysts feel Modi is weakened after four years of rule and to regather his "56-inch chest", the prime minister needed to reassert his friendship with the Chinese. There are of course others who are of the viewpoint that Modi did great in handling China after the serious standoff the two countries' militaries had in Doklam Plateau last year.
Not individuals but contexts
The issue is not an individual here but the context in which India-China relations need to be seen. Our perception towards China is centred around the personality cult perhaps because we have still not overcome the devastating defeat Jawaharlal Nehru had suffered in the hands of Chinese in 1962. The situation today has no glimpse of similarity with that which existed 56 years ago but still in our public discourse, that narrative gets reconstructed again and again whenever an Indian leader meets with his Chinese counterpart anywhere on this planet.
India needs infrastructure, investment; China needs market
The crux of the matter is both India and China need each other. While India has a huge market to offer, it requires infrastructure and investment. China, on the other hand, needs markets to absorb its overgrown infrastructure and industries. There is a huge scope for the two big economies that also lie next to each other to heighten their cooperation and gain from it mutually. If India is looking east for its economic development, China is also aiming west for its own benefit.
Of all the land or maritime neighbours that China has, none equals India's economy (with the exception of Japan with which too China doesn't share a great tie) and this automatically makes India the foremost preference for the Chinese investors and industries to engage with.
For India, too, there is little point in going to countries in South-east Asia that are doing less well economically in the name of 'Act East Policy'. The only country which can help India benefit economically and especially its backward north-eastern parts in China. The stage is hence set for an unprecedented cooperation between the two Asian giants for years to come.
Economics doesn't find a space because of politics
But it doesn't happen. Why? Because our politics, which is more fed by geographical concerns that the economic possibilities, don't allow it to. Ever since the 1962 disaster, India's political elite has assumed a 'critical but cautious' role on China and the country's gradually growing hyper-nationalist media also found a suitable opponent in Beijing to boost their own commerce. The sum total of this meaningless demonisation of China (Vajpayee's defence minister George Fernandes had reportedly said once that not Pakistan but China is India's No.1 enemy) hasn't helped India and today, PM Modi has to mend the fences with Jinping to serve his own interests ahead of the litmus test of 2019.
Modi is a leader of a noisy democracy; Jinping of a 'stable' authoritarian regime
Before passing a judgment on whether Modi showed his weaker face in the Wuhan talks, we need to understand a basic reality. Modi leads a noisy and chaotic democracy wherein he has to earn electoral victories to extend his stay in power. He has to win wrist wars against a 'deaf' opposition and a 'blind' media and the 'inadequately informed' common man while aspiring for a long stay in power and take the relationship with China forward.
Jinping, on the other hand, is a lifetime leader of an authoritarian system where only one party exists with zero resistance from any quarter. This non-democracy makes China's policies more solid and stable and they would be pursued over a long time. China is little concerned over the fact whether the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) runs through India's territory or not because it is only concerned about its economic interests. For India, this question of the transgression of its sovereignty is sensitive - all the more because it is a democracy. We have heard Congress chief Rahul Gandhi mocking a "tense-looking Modi" in Wuhan in the wake of Doklam and CPEC which suggests how difficult it can be for Modi in determining his course of foreign policy-making, especially against China which the Indian political establishment perceives as an enemy and not a frenemy as many analysts see it. This 'democracy vis-à-vis a non-democracy' thing undeniably makes Modi the weaker opponent.
It is good to see Modi and Jinping meeting each other regularly despite the odd problems at the borders. It gives enough hints that China is interested in India and doesn't really write us off as an unworthy rival. This consideration comes from the fact that Beijing sees things today through the prism of the economy and not the 1962 war which India still does.
India's political leadership might continue to meet its Chinese counterpart on more occasions in the near future but to change the scenario of buying small peace to one of sustainable friendship marked by whole-hearted economic cooperation, the perception towards China has to change.
Our leaders need not rush to China to save their election days but continue to cultivate the age-old relation with the northern neighbour for all-weather returns. Individual leadership doesn't matter but the continuity though it is a far difficult task to accomplish in a democracy than in an authoritarian regime.