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Air miles axe on Modi China trip

New Delhi, Nov. 5: Myanmar, Australia, Fiji, Nepal. Narendra Modi’s overseas itinerary this month may appear loaded but it may well have been more gruelling were it not for a cocktail of perceptions in the country, and outside.

Prime Minister Modi has decided against attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Beijing on November 9-10 despite a personal invitation from Chinese President Xi Jinping when they first met in Brazil this July, senior officials have confirmed to The Telegraph.

The Apec, a grouping of 21 Pacific Rim nations including the US, Japan, China and other littoral nations of Asia and South America, is emerging as a critical economic forum negotiating a key trans-Pacific trade pact that would bind these economies.

India, keen to join the trans-Pacific pact, has for the past four years been seeking membership of the Apec.

But fears over a perception that Modi may be spending far too much time abroad engaged in foreign policy coupled with diplomatic signalling to Beijing have made the government decide against the Prime Minister attending the Apec summit.

“He’s already spending so much time overseas this month --- the Apec summit is the one that could be cut from the schedule easiest,” an official aware of the preparations for Modi’s overseas travels said. “And, you’ve got to remember the summit is in China --- that adds another dimension.”

Modi will leave for Myanmar on November 11, spending three days attending the East Asia Summit and meetings with leaders of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean).

On November 14, he will fly to Brisbane, where he will attend the G-20 Summit on November 15-16. Next, he will fly to Sydney where he will address the Indian-Australian community --- an event inspired by his interaction with Indian Americans at New York City’s Madison Square Garden in late September.

From Sydney, Modi will fly to Canberra for bilateral talks with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott on November 18, before travelling to Melbourne for a public reception on November 19.

Modi will also fly to Suva, the capital of Fiji, on November 19, the first Indian Prime Minister in over three decades to visit that country. He will return to India on November 20 after his longest continuous stint away from the country as Prime Minister.

Four days later, he will again cross India’s borders --- on a trip to Nepal from November 24-27 for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in Kathmandu, where India will take over chairmanship of the Saarc. Modi had publicly promised to attend the summit when he visited Nepal in August.

In all, the visits to these four countries will consume 14 days of the month. Had Modi attended the Apec summit, he would have been away from India for 16 days at a time his government is facing criticism for its handling of Supreme Court directives on recovering undeclared wealth stashed overseas.

“The opportunity to attend the Apec summit was tempting, make no mistake,” another official said. “From an economic perspective, it is in some ways more important for India than even the G-20.”

Key leaders like US President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping will start a season of multilateral summits by attending the Beijing Apec. They will all then travel to the East Asia Summit in Myanmar before flying to Australia for the G-20.

“The Prime Minister has enough opportunities to meet these world leaders in Myanmar and in Brisbane, but what makes the Apec important is the trade agreement it is trying to stitch together --- an agreement that could shape the economics of the region in a way that will affect us,” the second official said.

No Indian Prime Minister has ever been invited to attend the Apec as an observer and the invite from Xi signalled, to many Indian officials, a possible precursor to formal Chinese support for India’s full membership in the grouping.

Xi has also invited Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is attending the Apec summit. The prospect of Islamabad gaining any edge over New Delhi in talks with the grouping isn’t a pleasant one for officials here.

But India’s ties with China --- described in September by foreign minister Sushma Swaraj as marked by both co-operation and competition --- do not allow Modi to visit Beijing on a short trip without a detailed evaluation of how the trip may be viewed there.

Modi could have visited Beijing for just the Apec summit and then made a second trip to China next year --- both nations are working on that visit --- for bilateral talks.

But the Indian Prime Minister visiting Beijing twice in two years could suggest greater warmth between the nations than is the reality. The Modi government wants more investments from China and doesn’t want border tensions, but Beijing isn’t its closest ally by a distance.

A second option was also considered --- Modi could have travelled to Beijing two days before the Apec meet, clubbing the summit with bilateral talks, and eliminating the need for a separate visit next year.

But that would keep him out of India for 18 days in the month.

Eventually, officials concluded that Modi would have to skip the Apec summit, even as the foreign office works on possible schedules for the Prime Minister to travel to China next year.