India plus China: Lots of people, but less love

It’s not often that two politicians can get together and claim to speak for more than a quarter of the world’s 7.2 billion people.

And what President Xi Jinping of China (1.4 billion people) and Prime Minister of Narendra Modi of India (1.3 billion) have to say to each other when they meet Wednesday and Thursday will draw attention far beyond New Delhi, from Tokyo to Washington.

The big question is whether these mega nations will put aside long-running border disputes and focus instead on the emerging power politics of what is increasingly being seen by Asian and Western policy makers and analysts as the Indo-Pacific region. Writers such as Robert Kaplan (author of “Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific”) assert that the wider region is returning to its thousands-year-old history of the movement of people and commerce across vast swaths of oceans and nations, a history that was interrupted only in the last two centuries by European colonialism and post-World War II nationalism.

But for Xi and Modi, both practical politicians, there are more immediate agenda items between two nations that have some common goals but potentially conflicting ambitions. In their brief encounters up to now, the leaders claim to have established a budding personal relationship, between a Hindu nationalist elected by hundreds of millions to bring some order to a chaotic democracy and a Communist princeling chosen by his peers to preserve an iron-fisted dictatorship.

Their common interests were reflected in this summer’s meeting of the BRICS leaders and a commitment to start a multi-billion development bank that could eventually emerge as a rival to the World Bank. Though still on the drawing boards, the bank reflects the desire of all the BRICS members –Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — to challenge and possibly displace the post-World War II institutions created and still dominated by the United States and Europe.

According to a group of analysts assembled last week at the Brookings Institution, the Chinese and Indian leaders have things they want from each other. Prime Minister Modi has embarked on a “look East” policy to widen India’s foreign policy beyond its preoccupation with Pakistan.

And President Xi, says Brookings analyst Kenneth Lieberthal, is trying to broaden China’s ambitions beyond the Pacific to the southwest and Central Asia, sometimes labelled the “Silk Road” policy.

But practical issues loom for both, a big one being Pakistan. Analysts Tanvi Madan of Brookings and Andrew Small of the German Marshall Fund both noted how unusual it was for Xi to visit India ahead of Pakistan, its only “all weather” ally in Asia. A planned Xi trip to Pakistan was scrubbed amid political turmoil there.

Small and other analysts said Pakistan and the border issues remain “red lines” for Modi and India, but that China is growing increasingly concerned that Pakistan might be stirring Muslim militants in its western regions. The two nations also share an interest in peaceful post-conflict Afghanistan that might run counter to Pakistan’s ambitions.

Lieberthal said China’s ultimate goal is to make sure India does not join any regional coalitions that side against Beijing. But Modi is warming relations both with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and his travel plans include a forthcoming trip to Washington. Also India keeps a wary eye on Beijing’s expanding footprint in the Indian Ocean, signaled by Xi’s visit to Sri Lanka, where China is developing ports, in advance of his trip to New Delhi.

Indian newspapers are reporting that Modi seems successful in playing the Chinese-Japanese rivalry to his country’s gain. The Indian leader won $35 billion in investment promises on a recent trip to Tokyo. Xi might be ready to up the ante to $100 billion plus in rebuilding India’s sprawling but dilapidated railroads.

The regional maneuvering, said Madan, also is part of a “delicate dance” between China, India and the U.S., which has been trying, with limited success, to build a strategic relationship with New Delhi since the George W. Bush administration. The Obama administration policy, according to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, is not to force India to choose between Washington and Beijing. And India’s interest with Washington was summed up by Madan: “We don’t want you to love us too much, but we want you to love us.” and to continue to play a balancing role in the Indo-Pacific region.

And as a reminder that high stakes diplomacy can sometimes resemble high school, several analysts agreed that if Beijing really wants a stronger relationship with New Delhi, it must assure the Indians that China takes India as seriously as India takes China.

Michael D. Mosettig was the PBS NewsHour’s foreign affairs and defense editor from 1985 to 2012. He now watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks and writes occasional dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.