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Coming to terms with China: Modi’s foreign policy initiatives in our neighbourhood; By Col. R. Harih

Article No. 023/2018

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is meeting President Xi Jinping in what is described as informal summit on April 27 and 28, 2018. They are expected to try and reboot their relations which had come under strain after the Doklam confrontation. China’s increasing inroads among smaller neighbours in India’s own backyard has become a matter of concern for India. The decision of all the neighbours’ of India, except Bhutan, to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), much to India’s discomfort, speaks for itself. Does the Indian establishment continue to see the smaller neighbours through eyes of a big brother? Can India deal with ever increasing in Chinese influence in South Asia?

These questions will have to be answered collectively, because there is a seamless connectivity between the Modi’s external and internal policy initiatives, to ensure India gains its rightful place in the international community, taking advantage of its size, growing economic power and geostrategic location.

His foreign policy initiatives are linked to benefit national development, trigger entrepreneurship and increase employment opportunities. In this respect, his foreign policy differs qualitatively from earlier initiatives, which they lacked an overall vision. PM Modi’s relationship building initiatives with other countries are applied at three geo-strategic levels – neighbourhood, regional and global. They are not mutually exclusive and need to be considered holistically.

At the strategic level, he is de-hyphenating India’s relations with other countries in keeping with the dynamics of strategic power play to come to terms with China’s efforts to create a new world order. This will explain Modi’s efforts to strengthen India-US relations. While maintaining existing close links with Russia. He has also de-hyphenated India’s growing relations with Israel from India’s stand on Palestine, while strengthening traditional links with other Islamic states like Iran, Saudi Arabia and the GCC. This has enabled India to strengthen national security as well as ensure energy security. With these initiatives, India hopes to expand trade and commerce and increase foreign investment in manufacturing and infrastructure.

India’s national security responsibilities have also increased, in keeping with its increasing international foot print, resulting at times in competing interests with China. However, it would be incorrect to equate PM Modi’s initiatives as a response to China’s own enlarging international presence. This is more so in our neighbourhood – Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and for that matter Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles in IOR. India’s relations with these countries are multi-faceted and special (in some cases unique) due to umbilical links of geographical connectivity and shared history.

India by sheer size of its land mass, population, economy and military power at times makes its neighbours uneasy. On some occasions, India’s own complacency in handling its power has resulted in browbeating some of the smaller neighbours to agree to its dispensation, reinforcing the notion of the big brother. Though this is inevitable in the world of realpolitik, India’s inability to fine tune its architecture in handling the smaller neighbours’s concerns over the years has given rise to anti-Indian sentiment within the body politics of neighbouring countries. Conscious of this, India seems to be improving its approach in treating them as equal partners, in its own national interest.

PM Modi’s initiatives have addressed some of these glitches affecting the neighbours with mixed results. To a large extent, during the last three years India has managed to improve its relations with neighbours (barring Pakistan) to retain its status as their key partner. However, India is still slow on delivering upon its promises, thanks to its internal “democratic” political decision-making process and limitations of bureaucracy to think out of the box. Of course, the same weaknesses apply to India’s neighbours in making good of India’s readiness to help.

China has come as a huge attraction for the impoverished smaller countries in South Asia. It promises to bring in Chinese investment to develop their capacities and open up global markets through better infrastructure. However, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project in Pakistan, the 21st Maritime Silk Road project in Sri Lanka and BRI linkages in Nepal and Bangladesh are much more than development initiatives. India has to watch these developments carefully and turn them to its advantage. This is more easily said than done. This can be achieved not by arm twisting, but by creating conditions for smaller neighbours to benefit from India’s own development agenda. This has to be ingrained in our policy implementation.

Whether China’s projects in our neighbourhood are economically viable or not, they boost China’s power assertion in South Asia. China’s strategic assets created in South Asia and Indian Ocean region is already leading to stationing of Chinese troops to protect its interests. The BRI also improves China’s global competitiveness; so it is not surprising that large chunks of Chinese investments are being made in BRI in South Asia with an eye on the huge under-serviced markets.

The reality is India cannot match China’s political and economic power and capabilities or its unbridled global ambitions. PM Modi is heading a vibrant democracy with its checks and balances operating on a different political plane, unlike President Xi Jinping who enjoys total political support as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ruling the country.

However, the two countries differ in their aspirations. India’s efforts in this region aim to protect its interest, rather than neutralize China’s entry. So India would like to maintain cordial, than confrontational, relations with its northern neighbour. Unlike India, China’s ambitions are global, in keeping with its massive economic clout supported by growing military power. So it would be logical for China to ensure normal relations with India are maintained, lest its global ambitions are queered by getting bogged down in confrontation with India, a regional power with its own strengths of size and growing economic and military power.

Moreover, China would like to continue to profit from India’s rapidly growing economy. Already China has emerged as the number one player in India’s huge mobile phone market. This does not mean China would give up its territorial claims on India or to settle the border problem. They serve as useful levers to periodically assert China’s strategic power. So, it would be incorrect to award brownie points to India’s foreign policy based only on China’s (or any other power’s) performance in India’s neighbourhood.

India will continue to loom larger than China in competitive politics of neighbouring countries for reasons of geography and soft power influence. Sections of political class in these countries find it profitable to leverage latent anti-India feelings to their advantage. China has increased its influence with these sections. Combined with its economic clout and selective use of anti-Indian sentiments, China is poised to enlarge its political influence in these countries. India will be keeping this in mind, in building both bilateral relations as well as in evolving multi-lateral strategies with other like-minded nations. India’s quadrilateral initiative with the US, Japan and Australia is one such move; however it has to grow beyond its military content.

India is trying to build qualitatively different initiatives with countries where China’s economic and military power loom larger than India (i.e.), Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. PM Modi’s invitation to ASEAN heads of state to attend the Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi is an example of such an initiative in action. India and Japan are closely cooperating in many projects in the region including in Sri Lanka, where they are jointly involved in building an LPG terminal. Japan is also investing in Chahbahar project in Iran, which is an India-Iran project. The Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC) is also in the offing.

But India is perhaps under performing in progressing its initiatives in South Asia as it is bogged down by its preoccupation with Pakistan. China’s strategic alliance with Pakistan has qualitatively changed India’ strategic threat perceptions. This has probably encouraged Pakistan army to renew its effort to pursue its tactics of ‘bleeding India’ using Jihadi terrorist groups to tie-down Indian security forces in Jammu and Kashmir. PM Modi has been fairly successful in his efforts to internationally highlight Pakistan’s state-sponsored terrorism, which has embarrassed Pakistan. This may not be enough for Pakistan army to loosen its strangle hold on national policy making in respect of national security and India. It is in this complex environment PM Modi will be meeting with President Xi.

The Indian PM’s success in implementing his vision is directly related to his political fortunes as India’s democracy validates national leadership every five years. President Xi does not enjoy such limitations as he is poised to lead the monolithic country perhaps for “life time”. So it is advantage, China and President Xi as of now. We have to wait and watch, how the cookie crumbles. In this context, probably Lord Palmerston of Great Britain’s cliché that in international relations there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests is true more than ever before. But our permanent interests will always rest in the neighbourhood and that has to include China.

[Col. R. Hariharan, a retired Military intelligence officer, is a member of the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the International Law and Strategic Analysis Institute. The views expressed in the article are of the author. 

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