The swift visit by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi was a sign that Beijing wants to lose no time in establishing contact with the Narendra Modi government and acquainting itself with its strategic and foreign policy objectives. As Mr. Wang told The Hindu, he came as a “special envoy” of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is scheduled to visit India later in the year; Premier Li Keqiang was among the first foreign leaders to call the Prime Minister after he assumed office. Foreign Minister Wang struck all the right notes during the visit, describing India and China as “natural partners”, and the sensitive issue of the border dispute as “a question left over by history” to which there had to be a “fair” solution but which should not be allowed to adversely affect other aspects of India-China relations. He held substantive discussions with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and National Security Adviser A.K. Doval before his meeting with Mr. Modi, during which he is reported to have conveyed a message from the Chinese President, that “[u]nder your leadership, India will achieve greater development and progress.” Clearly, China’s top leadership is eager to send positive signals to the new government. Mr. Modi has been an old friend: he visited the country four times as Gujarat Chief Minister. Beijing also likes to deal with decisive leaders and strong governments — Mr. Modi’s reputation and the BJP’s definitive electoral victory check both boxes. Moreover, at a time when most of China’s neighbours are increasingly irritated by and resentful of its actions, whether in the South China Sea or in the matter of airspace restrictions, Beijing is eager to shake off its tag as a difficult neighbour.
After his criticism during the election campaign of China's “expansionist mindset”, Mr. Wang’s visit was also an opportunity for Mr. Modi to make up by emphasising the civilisational links between the two countries, and how they “should build on them to enhance understanding of each other.” It is significant that the Chinese reach-out to India’s new leadership preceded the U.S.-India-Japan trilateral, which New Delhi is hosting later this month. India’s strategic partnerships with China’s rivals do not constitute a zero sum game – much the same way as Beijing’s partnerships with India’s rivals do not — and should not be perceived as such. Japan is Mr. Modi’s first port of call outside the region, after his visit to Thimphu at the end of this month. But it must also be noted that he will meet China’s President Xi at the BRICS summit in July. The problems in bilateral relations, including a yawning trade gap, cannot be papered over, but the latest high-level interaction reiterates that there exists willingness on both sides for pragmatic engagement.