Beijing Diaryby Pramit Pal Chaudhuri | June 11, 2015
Same Boat, Brother
Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi are crudely in the same boat when it comes to their economies: investment rates are not what they would like. In India, the private sector, burdened by debts and spooked by tax terrorism, is holding back on investment. In China, the government’s own attempts to get away from decades of over investment in physical infrastructure has led analysts to trim growth forecasts to just above 7% for the year.
Beijing accepts that its reforms will mean shifting the economy to a lower gear. But it wants the transition to go as socially smoothly as possible. It is trying divert the overcapacity in generators, cement and so on to overseas markets. Hence the multi-billion dollar One Belt, One Road and its component Silk Routes. A modern-day Lenin would claim this is imperialism with Chinese characteristics.
But with some unofficial estimates putting growth as low as 5.2%, China is also backpedaling on other issues. It is softening its stance regarding archrival Japan because, as foreign observers in Beijing note, it is alarmed that Japanese FDI to China has fallen over 40% the past year.
All Your Bases Belong To Us
This doesn’t mean Beijing has retracted its claws when it comes to its territorial disputes with neighbors. It has upped the stakes in the South China Sea, its most eye-popping example of snatch and grab, by building airstrips on contested atolls and coral reefs. But it has deliberately lowered the temperature when it comes to the Senkaku Islands (Daiyu Islands in China) dispute with Japan.
Chinese officials and academics insist that the easiest dispute they have is with India. The border is relatively peaceful, no one has died violently since the mid-1980s and the two countries now have “strong leaders,” the Chinese say, who can resolve the border dispute. They carefully differentiate the Indian border dispute from the South China Sea, arguing the former is a colonial leftover while the latter is about territory that is “indisputably Chinese” going back “to ancient times.” Given that India, Japan and Southeast Asia experienced an almost simultaneous assertiveness in their territorial disputes with China in the roughly 2008 to 2011 period, it will take a lot more to get Indians to buy that is true.
Narendra Modi’s visit, and especially his decision to open an account on the Chinese Twitter, Weibo, have generally gone down well in China. His number of followers tripled during his state visit and his selfie with Chinese premier Li Kejiang received 35 million hits. “It went viral,” said an Indian official.
Modi get a fair amount of abuse, largely by Chinese demanding India return “South Tibet”, their name for Arunachal Pradesh. Interestingly comments on the Weibo account now appear only in select times in the evening and morning which everyone assumes is by Chinese censors – removing the more egregious insults against Modi.
But Modi gets credit for wading into the wild dog world of social media. Tea Leaf Nation, a website that analyses Chinese social media, noted only five world leaders have dared to reach out to Chinese via cyberspace. In large part because of a fear of similar hyper-nationalistic abuse. It doesn’t help that Facebook and Twitter, where a more global audience could have balanced the Chinese commentary, are banned in the Middle Kingdom.
Chinese commentators across the board say the image of both India and knowledge of Modi has increased positively as a consequence.
And, yes, at least part of the crowd of 3000 who waved at Modi when he exited a Xian temple was spontaneous: the Indian prime minister had made the decision to take a walkabout on the spot, much to the horror of his security.
One Belt One Voice
Everything in China, one sometimes feels, ends up going back to One Belt, One Road – Xi Jinping’s grand plan to build a global infrastructure network with China at the centre. Everyone in China somehow connects what he is doing with One Belt, One Road – no matter how tenuous the link. I fully expected a noodle chef to say, “My noodle look like Maritime Silk Route.”
Chinese express sorrow that Modi rejected Indian endorsement of this project, saying New Delhi would selectively choose those bits that converged with its own interests. Sensible enough as the only two parts of One Belt, One Road announced for South Asia are a $ 46 billion transport corridor running through Pakistan and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor that would effect India’s sensitive Northeast. As one Western diplomat noted, “The BCIM would make your Northeast more connected to south China than it would to the rest of India. Exactly what the Chinese did in Myanmar, almost detaching Upper Burma from Lower Burma.”
Not that India can stop One Belt, One Road. But an Indian yes would have opened the door for almost all the smaller South Asian states to jump on the bandwagon. And India will indirectly end up funding it as one of the key funding bodies for building it will be China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – of which India is the second largest contributor.
Just in case you wondered: the “road” part is confusingly a reference to the maritime part of the project while the “belt” is the two land Silk Routes.
The latest statistic that the Chinese are bandying around to show the need for greater civil society engagement is that only 500,000 people travel each year between the two countries who have a combined population of 2.6 billion. “South Korea sends 8 million people to China every year,” said one Chinese think tank type. And most of that half-million is Indian. Only 180,000 Chinese come to India. There are no shortage of reasons why: a lack of Chinese speaking tourist guides in India, a Chinese vision of India as dirty, polluted and full of rapists, and a lot of difficulties getting Indian visas.
Modi is reportedly equally concerned about this lack of civil society engagement, one of the reasons he overruled India’s security agencies and unilaterally granted online visa applications to Chinese visitors to India.