Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping met in China’s historic city of Wuhan last month. Greeting each other warmly, the Indian and Chinese leaders talked over cups of tea and strolled in bucolic gardens. President Xi noted he had only twice met a visiting foreign leader outside Beijing. On both occasions, it was for Modi. Yet rather than demonstrating cordial ties between Asia’s ascending giants, the meeting served mostly to highlight divisions, given Sino-Indian relations have worsened greatly since Modi became prime minister in 2014, in particular after a military stand-off near the Bhutanese border last year. Both sides wanted a “reset”.
Modi’s position was the weaker of the two. India’s economy is smaller than China’s, and its military far punier. Many in New Delhi feared that the subtext of the summit was a plea that China should avoid more meddlesome border incidents that could destabilise Modi’s re-election campaign next year. Xi appeared more self-assured, having recently extended indefinitely his term as leader. Yet for all the rapidity of his ascent, China’s leader also often appears unsure how best to manage the complexities of his new global reach.
This pervasive sense of uncertainty is part of what US foreign policy thinker Robert Kaplan calls The Return of Marco Polo’s World, meaning the emergence of a new global order that would seem oddly familiar to the 13th-century explorer. Conventional wisdom suggests America is in relative decline while China, India and other emerging powers are on the up. Kaplan’s vision is more complex. “The map will increasingly be defined by a new medievalism,” he writes. The power of states will decline while loyalties to “city, empire and tribe” will matter more, as they did before the advent in the 17th century of the modern nation state following the Peace of Westphalia. “The smaller the world becomes because of the advance of technology,” Kaplan writes, “the more permeable, complicated and overwhelming it seems, with its numberless, seemingly intractable crises.” Little wonder even powerful leaders such as Modi and Xi struggle to make sense of it.
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