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Xi Jinping in India: Is a Breakthrough Possible?

This week’s meetings between the leaders of China and India occur at an important juncture in relations between Asia’s two largest powers. Sino-Indian relations have advanced over the past decade, especially through bilateral trade and more regular exchanges between senior officials. But the longer term potential in bilateral ties remains largely unrealized. Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi must now decide whether each is prepared to undertake a larger and more durable partnership. This will require transcending a half century legacy of mutual suspicion and geopolitical rivalry, contested territorial claims and (for India) the lingering effects of New Delhi’s humiliating defeat in the border war of 1962.

The most promising possibilities concern India’s prodigious infrastructural needs. Modi, drawn to China’s economic reforms and their relevance to India, visited China on three occasions prior to his election as Prime Minister. He sought with ample success to emulate Chinese achievements in his home province of Gujurat, where he long served as chief minister. As a testament to the province’s economic advancement, Xi began his visit in Ahmedabad, Gujurat’s largest city. For added measure, China’s leader arrived on the Prime Minister’s 64th birthday.

The possibilities of large-scale Chinese investment, especially in addressing India’s infrastructural needs, will dominate much of the discussion. Xi is accompanied by other senior party officials, numerous government ministers and by a large contingent from the business sector. Various reports suggest that China might be prepared to invest in excess of $100 billion over the next five years, and some estimates range much higher. Numerous memoranda of understanding will be signed during Xi’s visit, encompassing industrial parks, railways, highways, power grids, port facilities, banking operations and other project possibilities. Regardless of the precise numbers, China’s potential commitments seem certain to dwarf pledges of $35 billion made during Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to Japan.

New Delhi is acutely aware of the asymmetries in Chinese and Indian economic and military power, and hopes to be able to narrow these gaps without triggering acute tensions. It also remains very wary of China’s larger ambitions, including China’s maritime interests and activities in the Indian Ocean. Some in India are no doubt uncomfortable with large-scale Chinese investment, though these concerns are counterbalanced by India’s prodigious requirements in economic development. In addition, India has long sought increased respect from Beijing. The election of a powerful, determined new Indian leader helps ensure that Beijing will take New Delhi more seriously. In his initial discussions with President Xi, Prime Minister Modi called attention to the need to address the interests and concerns of both countries, an oblique reference to long festering border disputes, Beijing’s long-standing ties with Pakistan, and an array of parallel challenges, including terrorism, climate change and energy security.

As emergent major powers, China and India are both in quest of more autonomous and diversified political identities. The relationship with one another must be part of a larger strategic conversation. Without much fuller understandings across the full spectrum of bilateral and regional issues, the possibilities for a lasting accommodation between both countries cannot be realized. A much expanded Chinese role in India’s future development endorsed by both leaders is a necessary and appropriate place to begin. But this week’s deliberations will begin to suggest whether Xi and Modi are also prepared to grasp larger possibilities and pursue them in earnest.

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