Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping take a walk together along the East Lake, in Wuhan, China on April 28, 2018. (Photograph: PTI/PIB)

Wuhan-Wuhan Bhai-Bhai Is Seductive, But Here’s A History Lesson

BloombergQuintOpinion

Prime Minister Modi, the incurable workaholic, finally took a weekend off, in Wuhan, China!

Modi took a boat ride on and lazy walk along the edge of East Lake. He had a relaxed lunch where they laid out Gujarati table mats and cooked Gujarati delicacies (albeit by Chinese chefs). His host coaxed him to try exotic teas brewed by charming oriental hostesses, telling him how much he had enjoyed watching Bollywood blockbusters like Dangal and Secret Superstars. He went out of his way to make Modi feel ‘at home’ during the nine hours of face time, including seven that were straight one-on-one meetings, except for the irritating presence of interpreters. President Xi, the most powerful man in the world (okay, adding a qualifier, the second most powerful but unchallenged), just stopped short of speaking in Gujarati to completely charm his overwhelmed guest.

What Happened In Wuhan Stayed In Wuhan, But Why?

We don’t know too much more than the atmospherics, because what happened in Wuhan stayed in Wuhan. But more than the 'what', it’s the 'why' of Wuhan that is more intriguing.

It’s being whispered that Modi wanted to sue for a ceasefire, at least until the 2019 re-election challenge is behind him. He even conjured up his own version of Nehru’s Panchsheel Agreement – in typical Modi style, it was an alliteration, the 5 (Panch) Ss: Soch (Thought), Samman (Respect), Sahyog (Cooperation), Sankalp (Determination) and Sapne (Dreams).

Unfortunately, China rudely ignored this semantic exertion from the Indian prime minister.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping talk at a garden in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province, on April 28, 2018. (Photograph: Xinhua/AP/PTI) 
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping talk at a garden in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province, on April 28, 2018. (Photograph: Xinhua/AP/PTI) 

For over two years now, Beijing has thrown a tightening lasso around India’s (chicken) neck, prowling the Indian Ocean with an increasingly sophisticated navy, outwitting us in Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, culminating in the ‘battle for Bhutan’ at Doklam (plus an elevated 425 more Line of Actual Control transgressions by People’s Liberation Army troops in 2017).

Even as India held its nerve there, Modi is thought to be concerned about losing control over right-wing trolls if a few more Doklams were to happen before 2019.

These carefully nurtured warriors of Twitter/television jingoism and hate could become a Frankenstein, forcing Modi into a military misadventure which could backfire and cost him the 2019 race. So his was a petition for peace.

But what about President Xi? Why did he ‘invest a weekend’ eating dhokla when he would rather be enjoying his favourite steak?

Wuhan-Wuhan Bhai-Bhai Is Seductive, But Here’s A History Lesson

It’s always difficult to fathom the inscrutable Chinese leadership, but perhaps Xi was borrowing a trick from his hero and predecessor, Chairman Mao, whose “On Contradiction” famously espoused that “the principal contradiction determines which is the most pressing problem facing the leadership; this contradiction must be resolved before it is possible to move on to a higher stage of development”. Simply put, just focus your entire might on tackling your biggest problem at the moment; and park the distracting, minor problems for later.

Clearly, Xi Jinping is feeling a bit unhinged and disarmed in the bar-room battle against the ‘quick draw cowboy’ Donald Trump. Has China been left on the sidelines of a possible Korean truce, even a hitherto unthinkable denuclearisation and unification? Has China underestimated the potential economic damage that can be caused by a cavalier policy of punitive American tariffs? That certainly seems to be the case, given the Chinese scramble to deescalate a crippling trade war; so has America won the first round of this heavyweight bout, requiring China to calibrate its next response with much deliberation?

Then-CIA director Mike Pompeo shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, North Korea, during a 2018 Easter weekend trip. (Photograph: PTI/AP)
Then-CIA director Mike Pompeo shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, North Korea, during a 2018 Easter weekend trip. (Photograph: PTI/AP)

What if the gun-slinging American President from a long forgotten Wild West actually pulls the plug on Iran’s nuclear treaty? How will China respond to the severe sanctions that could follow? And what if India is snagged into the ‘dreaded Quad’ of an America-Japan-Australia-India military axis? Best, therefore, to park India with a ‘Wuhan palliative’ and strain every sinew to tackle the troublesome Trump.

Is There A Faint Echo Of Bhai-Bhai Emanating From Wuhan?

Nobody should deny or discredit the positive spin-off from Wuhan. The mere fact that China deigned to accord India the exalted status of an equal—“backbone of the world’s multi-polarization and economic globalization”—is a huge win. But beware China’s clever ambivalence.

As an example, try to parse the Chinese ambassador’s Tweet within days of the Wuhan Summit:

He then told reporters that this was the first of many steps that will be taken, clearly suggesting it was a post-Wuhan concession. India’s commerce minister was quick to hail China’s largesse.

But wait, this was not an India-specific announcement!

It was generally applicable for all WTO countries, and principally designed to pacify America!

In fact, Indian pharma dismissed it as inconsequential: “With China, the major issue is non-tariff barriers. They take 3-5 years to approve a drug registration.”

Welcome to China’s bhai-bhai (brotherly love) duplicity!

Once ‘Kindred Spirits’, Then Implacable Foes

People with longer memories than Wuhan’s cheerleaders would remember what happened immediately after both the countries won freedom from colonial rule in the late 1940s. Here is an excerpt from my book, SuperEconomies: America, India, China, and the Future of the World (Penguin Allen Lane 2015):

In the earliest days of Indian independence, relations between the two countries were chummy. Nehru, who was infatuated with what he called ‘the other great country of Asia’, became one of the first leaders to recognize Communist China as a sovereign nation after the 1949 revolution. In fact, the relationship in those days was colloquially characterized as ‘Hindi Chini bhai bhai’, or ‘Indians and Chinese are brothers’. Despite U.S. pressure, Nehru refused to implicate China as the aggressor in the Korean War. And when China overran Tibet in 1950, he essentially accepted Beijing’s claims as legitimate. In the 1954 Panchsheel agreement, India somewhat paradoxically agreed to recognize Tibet as part of China if Beijing would honor Tibet’s autonomy. Ever idealistic, Nehru seemed to have something of a blind spot when it came to China; he considered the two countries kindred spirits, the guardians of similarly proud and ancient traditions. ‘[A] variety of circumstances pull India and China toward each other, in spite of differences of forms of government,’ he wrote to his chief ministers in 1952. ‘This is the long pull of geography and history and, if I may add, of the future.’ He believed that the impenetrable Himalayas made a Chinese invasion extremely unlikely, and that in any case ‘there was no particular reason why China should think of aggression in this direction,’ he wrote. ‘There is a definite feeling of friendliness towards India in China.’

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong at Beijing, on October 23, 1954. (Photograph: Ministry of External Affairs)
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru with the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Mao Zedong at Beijing, on October 23, 1954. (Photograph: Ministry of External Affairs)

Doubts about China began to plague Nehru by 1956 when the Dalai Lama, visiting India with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, broke away from his delegation long enough to tell Nehru that conditions were so rough in Tibet that he wanted to escape to India. The prime minister talked him out of it.

But two years later, Beijing denied Nehru permission to visit Tibet.

Around the same time, the Chinese were discovered building a road between Tibet and Xinjiang through Indian-controlled Aksai Chin, territory that soon began appearing on Chinese maps as part of China. Nehru’s faith in the Chinese began to falter; according to the diary of Gopalaswami Parthasarathy, India’s ambassador to China at that time, the prime minister said he didn’t ‘trust the Chinese one bit’ and found them ‘arrogant, devious, hypocritical and thoroughly unreliable’. Tensions between the two countries escalated in March 1959, after a Tibetan revolt against Chinese rule sent the Dalai Lama fleeing to Dharamsala, where the Indian government granted him and his followers asylum. That infuriated the Chinese, and the two sides skirmished along the border. Nehru established ‘forward posts’ in the contested areas, though he continued to believe that all-out war was unlikely.

Some of the historical tangents are eerie, uncanny: kindred spirits, the red herrings of ‘affection’, Panchsheel or five principles of partnership enunciated by a ‘peace-loving’ India, the surreptitious building of roadsthen through Aksai Chin, now in Doklamborder skirmishes… ending in the humiliating 1962 war!

I don’t mean to be sensational. The chances of war, especially now that India is a nuclear power with an infinitely stronger army, are remote. But one thing remains as true as it was in the 1950s-60s: China respects only power, and India must buttress its strengths, either by itself or through alliances, if it wants China to take it seriously, all the feel-good stuff at Wuhan notwithstanding.

Else, the return of the bhai-bhai slogan can be treacherous.

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘SuperEconomies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.