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A New Era of Sino-Modi (India) Bhai-Behen : Need for Change

“…We are natural partners rather than rivals and the Chinese and Indian dream integrate with each other, so we should build closer development partnership with each other”.

-HUA CHUNYING Chinese Foreign Spokeswoman


Perception of India in China seems to have undergone a transformation from that of an “enemy” to that of friendship in the wake of the political transition in the Indian polity and its consequent impact on the conflict resolution processes. The new government under Indian Prime Minister Modi seems to signaling a new approach to India’s South Asian neighborhood policy. It is clear that Mr. Modi is trying to resolve all the disputes, especially on the economic front. This article attempts to study the Chinese reactions to the pre-election speeches of Modi with reference to China. It seeks to find an answer as to how and why, in spite of Mr. Modi’s belligerent talks against China in the run up to the election did not invite the wrath of the Chinese and why they continue to look upon him more as a friend who had committed mistakes than an adversary who sought to offend China. An attempt has also been made to assess the impact of the popularity of Mr. Modi in China in his efforts to chart out a new path to guide India-China relationship in the coming years.

Introduction: Justifying the Caption

Before going into the issues closer, I should refer to the invitation extended by the Chinese President Xi Jinping to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the first time in the history of Sino-Indian relations to the forthcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in to be held in China in November of this year. This was done on the sidelines of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit in Brazil on July 2014 and the timing of the invitation assumes significance. This implies that the outpourings against China made by Mr. Modi during his election rallies have not been misunderstood and taken in its stride. Be that as it may, at the outset, it needs to be clarified why the earlier theme of bhai-bhai has to be modified and used as bhai-behen. On a lighter vein, bhai-bhai suggests male chauvinist relations and excludes the female section of the population in India and China. This, in no way questions the wisdom of our forefathers. Rather, it is better argued that the term bhai-behan is more appropriate because it is in tune with our national philosophy and culture of gender equality. This term reflects more of Indianness than the term bhai-bhai which is neither indigenous nor a product of synthesis. Indeed, foreign policy and contents of foreign policy should reflect the culture, sentiments, public opinion and ethos of a nation. Any foreign policy designed under external pressure is bound to fail. This is perhaps the reason why national character is a necessary component of national power and constitutes an internal element of foreign policy of any nations of the world.

It does seem that if a survey is conducted for the national choice of the term to be used, the bhai – behen concept would get greater acceptance than the previous one. Any nation that disregards its culture and public opinion while designing and formulating its foreign policy will be suspect in the eyes of international opinion. This could have been a reason why we were criticized by various nations, soon after our independence, as the running dogs of imperialism, stooges of the west, etc. Presently, as a nation, we are not only enjoying the bhai-behen relations with China but with the whole world as well, if one goes by the traditional Indian philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (a Sanskrit phrase) of our Upanishad which remains relevant more than ever. By the way, it may also remind us the prophecy of our forefathers who coined terms like Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam which is a recapitulation of the modern day process of globalization.

Current developments and changes do suggestion a need for changing traditional concepts, especially when there is a greater participation of women in power both in India and China. Gone are the days of exclusive male domination in political arenas. Now, in the era of democracy and liberalization, females have entered mainstream politics and administration. As a result, we see today in 2014, the election of spokesperson or spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Madam Hua Chunying and the Indian Minister of External Affairs or Foreign Minister Madam Sushma Swaraj as women. So, it is in keeping these developments in the mind that the new term of bhai-behen has been coined to replace the older bhai-bhai.

Coming to the subject, since the announcement of the results of the 16th general national elections of India, there has been an eruption of hope in the public and media circles of India and China for resolving mutual disputes following the landslide victory of BJP Prime Ministerial candidate Mr.Narendra Modi as the 15th Prime Minister of India. The idea of Modi-China bhai-behen struck the attention of this writer after seeing the unprecedented casual reactions of Chinese media and authorities to various belligerent speeches of Mr. Modi during his electoral campaign. The only leader of India who seems to have had a tremendous clout in China is undoubtedly Mr. Modi. His record as the Chief Minister of Gujarat was indeed a factor. The popularity of Mr. Modi goes beyond the shores of India goes a statement in one his blogs ( In fact, it is true that in no other nation his familiarity has reached such heights as in China. Mr. Modi enjoys such a reputation in China that it did not decline despite his aggressive speeches against China at various places of India in the pre election rallies which made me to give a caption for this article as A New Era of Sino-Modi Bhai-Behen:Need for Change. The very fact that Mr. Modi is at the helm of affairs raises the hopes of China in forging friendship with India more in economic terms than in strategic one. This may be the reason for China’s foreign minister’s first visit to India in the month of June 2014, since the new government assumed power under Mr. Modi. It is noteworthy that Mr. Modi has been an influential figure in China even before he became Prime Minister of India. This can be understood by an incident on January 2010, when Gujarati diamond traders were arrested in China, the then Indian government’s efforts under Dr. Manmohan Singh at freeing them failed to bear fruit for almost two years. It was only after Mr.Modi’s visit to China, that they were freed in December 2011. We should keep in mind the fact that Mr. Modi was at that time only a Chief Minister of Gujarat. When as CM he can wield such a influence on China, it is not far to imagine the kind of influence that he may have on China in his current position as PM. This familiarity factor, especially his image as a friend of China, certainly gives a chance to Mr. Modi to resolve the outstanding issues with China.

It is because of his popularity in China that in some Chinese media and think- tanks he is described as India’s Nixon. However, there are fears in China that he might be India’s Shinzo Abe given Mr. Modi’s aggressive speeches warning and advising China regarding the disputes with India. Whether Mr. Modi is a Nixon or Shinzo Abe only time can tell us. However, at the individual level, what is important is the leadership of Modi in changing the contours of the Sino-Indian relations. For instance, it is hard to imagine the end of the cold war without thinking of the pivotal decisions made by the then erstwhile Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev. It is in this connection that many people ask a question: Can Modi be a Gorbachev of South Asia?


As we all know very well that, like Pakistan, another neighbour who has been a nuisance to India is China because of various disputes and outstanding issues. We had already fought a war with China in 1962. It does not mean Modi is not aware of these problems. For instance, when India under the BJP government tested nuclear weapons in 1998, the then Prime Minister Mr.Atal B.Vajpayee wrote a letter to President Clinton citing China as the main motivation and even as number one threat to India. Moreover, despite the economic gains in the relationship since, incidents such as China’s incursions over the border in April 2013, weeks before Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang was due to visit India, have not helped the government trust its northern neighbor more. However, as far as the chemistry between Mr. Modi and Chinese leadership is concerned, there exist commonalities like assertiveness, boldness, absolute power, single party rule and common approaches to the conflict resolution process which was absent during the period of Mr. Modi’s immediate predecessor. For instance, both Mr. Modi and China wanted their respective economies to improve by back seating the irritant issues so that these divergences may not hamper the progress in the India-China economic domain. Not only in the approaches but also in their mutual contacts, Mr. Modi is not new to China and China is not new to Mr. Modi either because of the simple reason that even during his previous tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat since October 2001, Mr. Narendra Modi has already played a key role in the bilateral relationship between India and China probably none of his contemporary can do that. As one of the few state-level politicians in India to have been hosted by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, he has nurtured a mutually beneficial relationship at the highest levels. The Chinese government, until Modi assumed power as Prime Minister of India, suspected India under the Congress government as playing the counterweight role nurtured by the US against China. In fact, soon after the defeat of the congress in the general elections, the election of Mr. Narender Modi as Prime Minister came as a relief to China.

The logic behind such reasoning is not hard to derive. China is aware of the fact that the continuation of the U.S. government’s refusal to grant a visa to Mr. Narendar Modi over the last few years, and this has also played the role of an invisible hand propelling Mr. Modi firmly in China’s direction and removing any misperception that Mr. Modi can be manipulated to go against China by U.S. Moreover, not surprisingly, Gujarat and Modi’s key constituents have benefited enormously from Chinese investments and loans. Big and small companies from China have come to view Gujarat as India’s answer to Guangdong province, from where a cluster of boomtowns catalyzed economic prosperity in the Middle Kingdom a couple of decades ago. The Indian establishment has been crying hoarse for Chinese investment in infrastructure for several years now, but there has been barely been a trickle in response. China’s lukewarm response can perhaps be attributed to India’s labyrinth of red tape including land acquisition laws.

China’s Comfortability with New Indian Leadership

A single factor that runs as a common thread throughout the history of India’s relationship with China has been the distrust, distrust and distrust since the collapse of the historic friendship attempted under Jawaharlal Nehru and Mao, and the Sino-India border war which followed in 1962. Just this past year, despite a goodwill visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, the Indian government announced its approval of the Himalayan mountain strike force which would allow India to move troops into Chinese territory for the first time. This strike force must have been influenced by the Himalayan standoff that preceded the visit of Li. India under the then leadership of Dr. Manmohan Singh ushered in the new levels of India-American cooperation that went to the extent of China perceiving India as one of the important tool in the American containment policy against China. China is more worried about India’s external connections than her indigenous security measures or defence posture. For example, when India tested the Agni-5 ICBMs in April 2012, expanding the scope of India’s nuclear deterrent, and bringing the whole of China in range for the first time, China did not bother about it as her own capability is superior to that of India in these spheres.

Be that as it may, in hindsight it is clear that Mr. Modi was vociferous about the territorial disputes during his election campaign, famously stating this year at a campaign rally in Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as its own territory, that “The world does not welcome the mindset of expansion in today’s times. China will also have to leave behind its mindset of expansion”. In the same fashion on another occasion at the Ex-servicemen’s rally in Rewari (Haryana) in September 2013 were even more direct: “Everyday, we are surrounded by dangers…China keeps threatening us often, it intrudes our land. Not only this, it is trying to bar down the waters of Brahmaputra, to capture Arunachal Pradesh from us”. Indeed, such an accusation is not new to China as, time and again, India has been alleging that China has infringed on India’s security in the disputed borders. For instance, in 2013 India accused Chinese troops of intruding nearly 20 Kilometers (12 miles) into Indian claimed territory, triggering a three-week standoff that was resolved when forces from both sides pulled back. What is new this time around is the pro-active and provocative element of Mr. Modi- that too in the peace-time of the Sino-Indian relations.

However, for all these harsh statements of Mr.Modi, the kind of response from the Chinese authorities has surprised us. Instead of taking a tough stance, the Chinese foreign policy experts have described his remarks as merely campaign-trail rhetoric. One illustration that tells us that China is comfortable with Mr. Modi is the fact that after Modi emerged as a Prime Ministerial candidate in September 2013, the Chinese government immediately upped the ante by offering to meet 30% of the total demand for investment in India’s investment sector until 2017. It is difficult to avoid reading between the lines and seeing this as an endorsement of China’s faith in Modi to walk the talk should he take the helm after the general elections. The inherent strength of the Modi-China relationship is underscored by Chinese media’s response to Mr. Modi.

Again, in yet another political rally the prime ministerial candidate made an electioneering speech in Arunachal Pradesh in 22nd February 2014, in which he said that “Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India and will always remain so. No power can snatch it from us and that the people of Arunachal Pradesh did not come under pressure or fear of China”. He had added, “China should shed its expansionist policy and forge bilateral ties with India for peace, progress and prosperity of both the nations.” In short, what Modi wanted to convey was that he was asking China to back-off from its claim over the province, which it claims as South Tibet. Yet Chinese official media quickly downplayed Modi’s words as a necessary electioneering tactic. This kind of casual-yet-friendly response can also be seen on the eve of Mr. Modi’s recent maiden visit to Bhutan on June 2014. It is generally believed that this may be perceived in China as a move to check her influence in Bhutan. However, when Prime Minister Narendra modi visited Bhutan, China rejected any such suggestion of any competition with India for a strategic space in the neighborhood, affirming that it was both happy with Mr. Modi’s visit and full of confidence over the future of relations with India. Such bonhomie can be a crucial ingredient in the concrete that cements India-China ties over the next five years. India could very easily change the trajectory of its economic growth for the better by tapping China’s experience in economic development. The one reason for the benevolence of China towards Mr. Modi is the refusal of U.S. to give visa to Modi for his alleged role in the Gujarat carnage. This makes China safe to bet on Modi for it believes that he won’t be in the gang of nations having sinister designs against China. Once China thinks that India is not in the U.S. camp against China, it may pave the way for positive changes in the China’s policy towards India and as a result, it is the hope of the writer that subsequently the effects of security dilemma on the Sino-India relations can be mitigated gradually.

Economic Crusader called Modi: China’s Hope

If anyone is quick enough to brand Mr. Modi as hawkish or hyper nationalist, they must be living in their own fool’s paradise by taking him at his face value. The heated arguments and aggressive speeches, warning or advising China, is however, one side of Modi; the staunch, security-minded, nationalist who won voters with his “less government more governance” mantra. The other Modi is the economic-minded technocrat who knows the value of tapping into China’s economic muscle. Chinese experts and policy makers see a way out of any “India-driven” strategic emphasis rather than confronting China, some believe that Modi will seek to learn from Chinese growth and will focus on integrating the two economies. According to Prof. Wang Dehua, “Modi will have a major impact on China-India relations. For China, it will be good news because he will put the focus on economic relations.”

Mr. Modi’s economic administration of Gujarat, which grew rapidly during his tenure, was widely cited in Chinese coverage of the Indian election, and the concept of Gujarat as India’s “Guangdong” province referring to the southern province in which economic reforms were tested under Deng Xiaoping—has been circulated alongside the idea that Modi’s India will chose the “Chinese Model” for growth. Comparisons with China are frequent in India, and the Modi election has revealed a deep thirst for India to act upon what many see as its untapped economic potential. New Delhi was the first visit that Premier Li Keqiang made overseas, in a symbolic gesture to open a new era of “strategic partnership” and it is said in the media that Xi Jinping will visit New Delhi for the first time this year. China’s key economic and energy security initiative, the “New Silk Road,” is another initiative in which China sees the opportunity to engage with India. The “New Silk Road” follows, as in its ancient and medieval history, two routes west from China the first is through Central Asia, and the second, “The Southern Silk Road” passes from Yunnan, through Burma and into the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. When Premier Li visited India last year in 2013, his ambition was to connect with India’s “Look East” policy. In 2013, India and China have set a goal of increasing bilateral trade to $100 billion by 2015, up from $66.5 billion in 2012 (The Indian Express, October 23, 2013). Similarly, when Modi visited China in 2011 as Chief Minister, he was eager to attract investment from China, and to learn from Shanghai, Guangdong and China’s experience of opening to the outside world. This mutual friendship, if sustained, can be a panacea for all the ills of India-China relations.


However, one needs to be realistic: in spite of the efforts of the leaders like Modi, Xi or Li to do their utmost to shift the focus of the relationship from anxiety and antagonism to harmony and tranquility, certain fundamental challenges, no doubt, will remain. To give an example, there is a strong fear in India about China’s intentions in the Indian Ocean, in the Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear weapon programme, and in the string of pearls theory. Nevertheless, by seeing the Chinese behavior in engaging with the new government, one can come to a conclusion that the idea of good relations with India will certainly remain a key feature of Chinese strategic vision in the years to come or at least in the nearer term. The faith the Chinese leadership pose on Modi can be seen in the statement issued soon after the conclusion of the first visit of Chinese foreign minister Mr. Wang Yi, one of the first senior officials from China to visit India following the India’s national elections as Xi Jinping’s Special Envoy. This underlined China’s intent of building closer ties with India. It is expected that Mr. Xi will visit India later this year probably after Modi’s visit to China.

Mr. Wang Yi sent out a message on the occasion that the Chinese leaders pay high attention to bilateral ties and their mutual interest far outweighs disputes. The very fact that within the two weeks of his coming to power, he has been able to attract the foreign minister of China to India with the blessings of the Chinese leadership speaks volumes of his popularity in China. However, experts feel that Mr. Modi must bridge the deficit by seeking greater access to China’s market, with the two sides targeting an annual bilateral trade of $ 100 billion by 2015. Though Modi warned China to shed its expansionist mindset at an election rally earlier this year, for the first time, China hit back but rather softly, by downplaying it as an “electioneering tactic”. Soon, it extended an invitation to him to visit China in the forthcoming APEC meeting by none other than the Chinese President Xi himself.

Now it is up to Mr.Modi to prove to the world in general and to the India, in particular, whether his spirited speech was a tactic or was borne out of nationalism and patriotism. However, it is too early to expect any breakthrough in his neighbourhood policies from our PM Modi who has just concluded a month and a half in office. Nevertheless, it may be said that Mr. Modi’s ability to convert the commonalities and rapport between him and China into broader harmonious national interests of India and China depends not only on him but also on China as successful operations of international relations is like the clapping of two hands which is possible only through cooperation.

Last, but not the least, is the fact that unlike his predecessor Dr.Manmohan Singh, Mr.Modi need not seek guidance or direction from others and can act on his own. There is a great opportunity exists right now, to restart the peace process and to resolve all the disputes with China thereby transforming the mutual security dilemma into mutual security cohesion. All these changes are possible given the strong leadership on both the sides. So far, the mutual signs that are emanating from India and China to each other have been benign and that momentum has to be sustained. It does not matter that both may have different political systems or ideologies; yet, when they are united in their intentions of making peace, conflict resolution or in the language of harmony, it is the humble desire of the author that it may lead to the ushering in of the halcyon days in India – China relations.

(The writer, Dr.G.Thanga Rajesh, is Research Officer, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email:

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