Ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit, India will do well to complete its homework — from symbolism to business
On July 22, an amusing news item caught everybody’s attention. The visit by the Communist Party of China leader and state President, Xi Jinping, to India in October depended primarily on the runway length of the Indian airport. “A runway big enough for the aircraft carrying Chinese President Xi Jinping and his large high-powered delegation to land directly from Beijing is believed to be one of the key parameters when the Indian and Chinese sides jointly decide the venue for the second informal summit in India between President Xi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” said the report.
Several points, therefore, emerge on the runway alone. First, if it becomes one of the prime issues regarding the visit and venue of the Sino-Indian bilateral, then it’s up to the host nation, India, to take the call because once a sovereign nation hosts a top dignitary of another sovereign nation, it’s the duty and responsibility of the former to take care of and fulfil all parameters of safety, security, hospitality and protocol among other things. Second, if the guest raises the airport runway length of the host as an issue three months before the visit, then the bilateral looks more like a logistics-centric exercise than a serious diplomatic discussion. Third, does the unusual “runway length” shift the focus on to poor airport infrastructure in India’s backyard, which the Chinese guest would like to see as a business opportunity for “upgradations?” Fourth, is it a Chinese ploy to play with and point out the vulnerability and backwardness of the host? To show India in poor light in front of the world? Through wide media coverage?
If so, understandably the airport “runway” has its ancillaries, too, under the scanner. Leave road, hotel, transport, communication, media facility, security and hospitality aside. There is a need for ample room for VVIPs to move around and stroll in solitude. There are expectations of an informal, intimate and private set-up with spacious arena, beyond the gaze, or radar, of the “excessively inquisitive” media, being in tune with the philosophy and standard set long ago by disciples of the Marx-Lenin duo.
Coming back to the Indian airport and Chinese aircraft for the Sino-Indian bilateral, it may not be far-fetched to visualise Xi alighting from a four-engine US-made Boeing 747 as there is nothing else in the vicinity, notwithstanding the existence of the sole four-engine Airbus 380 of Europe.
Assuming again that Airbus 380 could be one of the options for the flight of the Chinese leader, as reportedly China Southern Airlines operates five such aircraft, in reality, it’s highly unlikely. Only four Indian airports of Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad have the facility and capability to handle super-jumbo Airbus 380, the maximum take-off weight of which is between 510 and 575 tonnes.
Hence, it’s almost certain that only a fully-laden four-engine US Boeing 747 will be the preferred aircraft with a maximum take-off weight between 362.875 tonnes and 442.250 tonnes (depending on the model and date of manufacture). That takes us to the possible Indian venue of the meet, which has to be the same city for the foreign dignitary. Thus, whereas there exists more than 30 international airports in India’s map, handling aircraft of various size, shape and capacity for diverse destination, only the top 10 longest airport runways could be considered for visiting Chinese dignitary.
These 10 are New Delhi 4,430 metres (14,534¢); Hyderabad 4,260 metres (13,976¢); Bengaluru 4,120 metres (13,517¢); Chennai 3,662 metres (12,020¢) and 2,935 metres (9,629¢); Kolkata 3,627 metres (11,900¢) and 2,790 metres (9,150¢); Ahmedabad 3,599 metres (11,807¢); Mumbai 3,445 metres (11,302¢) and 2,990 metres (9,760¢); Kochi 3,400 metres (11,154¢); Amritsar 3,289 metres (10,790¢) and Thiruvananthapuram at 3,400 metres (11,154¢).
We can now say with a reasonable degree of confidence that the Boeing 747 of Xi will land at one of these 10 airports. Why? Because a fully-laden Boeing 747 (a VVIP like Xi arriving in India cannot come in an aircraft without full load owing to various obligatory safety, security parameter and protocol) takes anywhere between 7,000¢ and 8,000¢ length runway for landing and between 9,950¢ and 10,600¢ for take-off. That said, every flight also requires an additional 2,000¢ to 3,000¢ length for manoeuvring, in case of an aborted take off or emergency landing. And one simply cannot take any chance with high-profile visit of an important head of state.
So, once decided, one would like to ask: Which airport would be preferred for Xi’s October visit? Here, I dare suggest, if I was there, I would unhesitatingly suggest Kolkata as the venue for the Indian Prime Minister to welcome the Chinese President for an “informal bilateral visit.” Absurd? Impossible? Hallucination? No. Not at all. It’s real. Practical. Art of turning impossible into possible.
Too much political bickering between Delhi and Kolkata is reaching an unacceptably high decibel, thereby creating an irreparable rift between the Centre and the whole of the East and North-East. Perennial neglect and snubbing of the East and the North-East is creating a cleavage with potential long-term damage. Hence, hold the meeting in Kolkata to equalise its strategic value as a gateway to our Look east policy, China having already consolidated its economic hold on Southeast Asia. The distance between the Kolkata airport and Raj Bhavan can be covered through the aerial route. Dum Dum to Race Course, under Eastern Army Command, is six-eight minute flying time, and Race Course helipad to Raj Bhawan would be a maximum three-four minute drive for VVIP motorcade.
The river-front of Hooghly, from Eden Garden to Princep Ghat, could easily be spruced up again under the Eastern Army Command. Hotels of Taj Bengal and Oberoi Grand could be had for the entire entourage. Those coming by road from airport to hotels could easily cover the distance through fly-overs in 30 minutes, under controlled protocol of traffic guards.
Politically and diplomatically, it can very well be a win-win situation for all. Delhi could show political sagacity. Kolkata its traditional magnanimity. And the Chinese guest could have a reunion with those Chinese who made Bengal their home almost 100 years ago when China (especially Shanghai) was on fire, from May 4, 1919. There still are Chinese, who do Durga Puja in China Town and have even written slogans in Chinese language during the last parliamentary elections.
There, however, is one knotty issue: The date of the visit. If it’s Durga Puja/Nava Ratri, it has to be between October 2 and 8. The only thing which, perhaps, needs to be avoided is that it may not be between October 20 and 31. October 20 because India was attacked by China on that day in 1962. Hence, all 11 days from October 20 to 31, when India was being mauled by the PLA, may not give politically the right signals. October 1 will be the 70th birth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. We all compliment China on its 70 years, but Beijing, too, needs to understand the sentiment of Indians for mutual reciprocity pertaining to goodwill and harmony. Hence, to my mind, a visit between October 6 (Ashtami) and October 8 (Dussehra) could be ideal. Both diplomatically as well as internally. It reminds me of the book by General William Slim, Defeat into Victory.
(The writer, an alumnus of National Defence College of India, is author of China in India. Views are personal.)
Writer: Abhijit Bhattacharyya
Courtesy: The Pioneer