A Tale of Two Visits: Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping in Washington

Even for a city like Washington D.C., that is used to its regular influx of world leaders flying in and out, this week has been breathless. What might come as a surprise to many, most of the excitement is reserved neither for Chinese President Xi Jinping, nor for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but the Pope. His six-day, three-city and over a dozen private and public event visit has been described as a cross between a “military operation, a diplomatic mission and an arena-rock tour.”

With over twenty percent Americans professing their faith in Roman Catholicism, the excitement is understandable. This is Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States, and also the first time that President Obama will welcome a Pope to the White House. The media frenzy has been reflecting public enthusiasm, with little mention of any other high level visitor.

It is not just the attention of American media that Modi and Xi are vying for, but also of the administration and of the American business.

The Two Leaders

Xi has spent the first leg of his visit –September 22-24 in Seattle, touring the Boeing factory and meeting business leaders – Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Starbucks’ Howard Schultz to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook of Apple, and Virginia Rometty of IBM. At the end of an internet forum, many of these CEOs were seen queuing up to meet the Chinese president. Despite a ban on Facebook in China, Mark Zuckerberg was among the first to greet Xi. However, neither Facebook nor Google, which also has many of its services blocked in the country, is believed to have managed one-on-one time with Xi.

Modi, however, will not disappoint the two companies; he is scheduled to visit both Google and Facebook in the San Francisco leg of his visit on September 26-27. He will participate in a Town Hall Q&A with Zuckerberg, meet Apple’s Tim Cook and hold an interactive session with 30 Indian and 17 Silicon Valley start-up companies. Before this, he will meet heads of financial companies and host CEOs of Fortune 500 companies for dinner in New York. The theme in all these meetings will be the same – urging them to invest in R&D facilities in India, bring in know-how into India, as well as hire more Indian talent for their operations.

Even as the two leaders crisscross North America in their jets, parallels are already being drawn. News of India okaying a $3 billion Chinook and Apache helicopters deal began to be compared with a deal from China for 300 commercial Boeing aircraft valued at $38 billion.

US-China Unease

Beyond casual comparison however, challenges for Xi and Modi are quite different. While he may be accorded the honour of a state dinner and a 21-gun salute, Xi’s meeting with Obama will raise multiple contentious issues. Topping the agenda are charges of state-sponsored cyber espionage by China against American business interests. The other major point of disagreement is China’s claim of sovereignty in South China Sea and the resulting decision to reclaim and build military installations in the Spratly islands.

The US policy community has been urging the administration to demonstrate a strong disapproval of the Chinese position on both these issues, which will likely begin take the bilateral meet in the path of some form of confrontation. Since touching down, Xi has used every opportunity to assure his country’s innocence on the cyber crime issue. In Seattle, he denied the Chinese government had ever approved cyber attacks on American businesses, even suggesting setting up a joint mechanism to fight the menace. This being the first opportunity to meet big business after the crash in the Chinese stock market, Xi has to also look confident about the health of the Chinese economy.

Will India Address US Concerns?

Modi, on the other hand has to demonstrate that the euphoria and the energy in the US-India relationship accompanying his taking over last year was not mere optics. Some quarters of the American industry eager to do business with India last year have been sounding disappointed on the pace of economic reform and opening up of domestic markets. Earlier this week, some lawmakers from both parties wrote to Secretary John Kerry about worsening trade barriers and IPR issues, asking him to bring them up with the visiting Indian delegation.

Modi’s domestic popularity is not in question – 87% respondents in a recent Pew Global survey said they had a favourable opinion of him; what he will have to do is demonstrate a will and an ability to get things done, and fast. For example, as he meets CEOs in Silicon Valley, he will have to decide if this is just an opportunity for India to get companies to set up some production lines in India like in China, or if he wants to benefit from the ecosystem of ideas and innovation that the valley offers.

The article appeared on The Quint website on September 25, 2015.

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