Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has suggested his country was preparing for ‘another Wuhan’, a high level summit once again between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Obviously this cannot happen before the Indian parliamentary elections are over – but the Chinese foreign minister seems to be suggesting that Modi will be back in power anyway.
The Chinese, for all their other strengths, are not known for their understanding of complex elections – and for obvious reasons. But though they don’t have to worry about elections back home, the Chinese have to closely monitor elections in other countries, especially in the neighborhood or where they have made much investments with long-term calculations.
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So, their intelligence and South Asia-focused think tanks are surely providing their own assessments about the Indian elections to the decision-makers in Beijing. A recent interaction with leading South Asia specialists in China during an international conference on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has left me with the feeling that China fervently hopes that Modi returns to power. Whether he and his party can, is another question.
Does Modi Need China’s Backing?
In January this year, the Chinese state media outlet, Global Times, said that China can help PM Modi who is facing growing discontent due to scarcity of jobs, and “this is not good news for China, because China wants Modi to have better control over the country.” The report suggested the solution for Modi – to encourage more Chinese investments, especially in labour-intensive sectors.
“More than one year after the military standoff in Doklam, which plunged China-India relations to their lowest point in decades, bilateral ties are on the upswing. India has a weak central government and diverse population. We hope Modi can improve his public standing so that he can consolidate sufficient power to push forward reform and Sino-India economic cooperation, as bilateral relations warm up,” the report said.
The report further said that the Modi administration needed good news in terms of job growth ahead of the general elections, and inviting more Chinese investment will help with that. It is a different matter that Modi has not firmly negated calls by trader bodies to boycott Chinese goods – the Chinese know for a fact that is easier said than done, and that, election time rhetoric does not mean much.
China Feels Modi Will Carry Forward ‘Wuhan Spirit’ If Voted Back
But why would the Chinese be so keen on Modi's return, as the Global Times report suggests, or my interaction with Chinese think-tanks seem to indicate? In the first place, the Chinese abhor uncertainty that a change of regime produces, and their recent experience in Asia has reinforced their faith in emphasizing on continuity.
By now, Chinese experts feel that they have got a measure of Modi’s intentions, and that he will carry forward the ‘Wuhan spirit’ if re-elected. Most Chinese analysts can only see Modi and BJP provide a stable government with a continuity of policy – the other option, according to them, is a ‘messy coalition’ with Congress and regional parties , where, to quote a Yunnan-based expert, “it will be difficult for us to find the head and the heart of the government.”
Be it the disputed border or contentious issues like trade and investment, the Chinese fear a ‘policy paralysis’ in the event of an ‘uneasy coalition’ running Delhi. At the moment, China is almost desperate to get India into the BRI, regardless of the time it takes – so, Wang Yi, after saying that the upswing of Sino-Indian relations will not be affected by India not joining the BRI conference in Beijing this year, immediately made an appeal to New Delhi to reconsider its position, and assures it that participation in BRI will not impact India's sovereignty concerns in Kashmir.
Why Pakistan Feels Indo-Pak Peace Stands a Chance Only If Modi Returns
Portuguese politician and Sinologist Bruno Maçães has said in his recent book Belt and Road, that India is crucial to BRI's success, blaming China for the initial apathy in not trying hard enough to get Delhi to sign into the initiative. China's South Asia specialists feel only a perceived hardline nationalist – and a transactional leader like Modi – can be counted on to take domestically controversial decisions involving political risks – be it BRI or a border settlement, or in announcing a major role for Chinese companies in ‘Make in India’, and giving them big-time market access.
Imran Khan has gone on record to say that peace between India and Pakistan stand a better chance if Modi returns to power. The BJP’s hyper-nationalism reinforces the same brand of politics that Khan pursues back home, its aggression justifying a bigger role for the Pakistan military who backed Khan’s rise to power.
It is also the BJP's politics of ‘othering’ the Muslims, that ends up cementing Jinnah's ‘Two Nation Theory’, which is the raison d'être for the very existence of Pakistan, and which was severely undermined by the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.
And Khan, rightly or wrongly, feels that only a hardline leader like Modi can sell a Kashmir settlement with Pakistan back home. Thus, BJP’s fear of a Khan ‘reverse swing’ to embarrass Modi, may not be justified.
The Pakistan Prime Minister has strong domestic, economic and external compulsions to make peace with India – or at least be seen as starting the process. So, despite the ‘surgical strikes’ in PoK, and the stand-off at Doklam, both Xi Jinping and Imran Khan – problem-boys for most Indians – want Modi back in the saddle.
(The writer is a veteran BBC journalist and an author. He can be reached @SubirBhowmik. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)