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Modi’s Likely China Policy

While India is in the midst of a general election with leading political parties articulating their agendas before the people, foreign policy focus seems to be somewhat subdued. Yet, passing references have been made by the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Narendra Modi, poised to sweep the polls and be hoisted as the country’s next prime minister as what his government’s foreign policy priorities would be when he assumes office. While there shall be a general policy of continuity in India’s neighbourhood policy, the policy under Modi’s leadership under the banner of BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in particular towards China would be worth-watching.

India’s stated foreign policy strategy boasts for its strategic autonomy but has often been criticised as meek, unclear and without focus. Indeed, if India aspires to be a regional power, it has to project its foreign policy that should look robust and muscular. Unless India does that clearly, merely having strategic partnership with many countries without defining what really those mean makes no sense. In particular, in view of China’s assertive stances on regional issues and ongoing border disputes with India, how the next government handles the China challenge is worth examining.

Even in the midst of the concerns over China’s rise and suspect behaviour, India-China relations in the economic domain continue to improve. Even the issue of Dalai Lama and territorial issue in Arunachal Pradesh have not hampered the strategic and economic dialogues. Indeed, both the countries held the sixth round of strategic talks in Beijing on 14 April, discussing bilateral ties as well as expanding cooperation on common regional challenges. Coinciding with the ongoing general elections, China exercised restraint and played down the impact of elections in Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing sees as a disputed region, and welcomed the foreign secretary Sujatha Singh who led a high-level delegation of diplomats for the sixth round of strategic dialogue. Comments in Chinese media did refer to the economic situation in the northeast region of India but did not mention Arunachal Pradesh.

After the foreign secretary met her counterpart vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin, foreign affairs spokesperson Hong Liei observed that the dialogue is “an important activity under the China-India friendly exchanges of the year 2014” and believed that it will “enhance our strategic communication, friendly exchanges and practical cooperation and provide a strong boost to stable and sound relationship between the two countries”. Singh also called on the foreign minister Wang Yi.

Since the dialogue took place amid the on-going general elections, it was expected that Beijing adopt a cautious, wait-and-watch approach before pushing any new major diplomatic initiatives until the new government takes charge in New Delhi in May. Not surprisingly, the main focus of the talks was expanding cooperation on common regional challenges such as the situation in Afghanistan.

China’s position on territorial disputes with India, especially on Arunachal Pradesh on which it has made territorial claims, remains unchanged. However, when the state went to the polls in the second phase of the general elections, China preferred not to make any comment; neither did it express its uneasiness openly but maintained diplomatic disquiet. China has in the past issued stapled visas to students, athletes, bureaucrats and army officers from the State visiting China, which it calls South Tibet, to underline its position that the territory was disputed.

Contesting Arunachal Pradesh as an integral part of India, Beijing has often strongly criticised the visits of top Indian leaders, including President Pranab Mukherjee’s November 2013 visit to the State. Beijing also protested when Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetans and a guest of India, visited the State in the past. The border in the State is one of the areas of dispute between the two countries with conflicting border claims.

Beijing is watching carefully what could be Modi’s, if elected to power, policy towards China. There are two aspects of Modi’s likely China policy, if he is catapulted to power, that Beijing would be analysing. One is economic and the other is political. Demonstrating his nationalistic posture, Modi observed in a rally at Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh on 22 February: “Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India and will always remain so”. He further asserted “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.”

Is Beijing worried by such Modi rhetoric? According to Hu Shisheng, a leading South Asia expert at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, China is not. He believes that Modi’s stance on the border would not be harder as that would not serve India’s interests. According to him, the only approach to resolve the border issue is by adopting the policy of give and take, and peacefully and diplomatically seeking mutually accepted solutions.

What happens if both fail to resolve the border issue in the near future? One way to address is to develop cooperation in some other more strategically important areas with strengthening the global and regional governance, while keeping the dispute pending resolution. But it would remain unclear if India would accept such a position, as that would mean admitting that a dispute does indeed exists, which is not the country’s official position. Surprisingly, India did not raise any objection, which it should have, when the Chinese media criticised the Indian government’s policies in the north eastern states, commenting that the north eastern states are isolated and neglected and that the unrest and insurgencies in the region geographically close to the disputed border were fuelled by New Delhi’s continuous apathy towards the region. By not protesting to such comments to its internal affairs by a foreign country meant India’s pusillanimity.

The other is economic, if Modi is going to imbibe the China model in the country’s development strategy. During his visit to Beijing in the autumn of 2011, Modi as the chief minister of Gujarat addressed a crowd of 200 Chinese investors offering them “governance, transparency and stability”, the three commodities that China Inc. would find difficult to locate elsewhere in India. Modi’s pitch for the “Gujarat model” appealed the Chinese. Being an admirer of the “China model”, the Chinese enterprises are likely to see Modi government with cautious optimism, though the Chinese official position would likely be complete indifference as outcome of elections is unlikely to influence either the Chinese government or its state-run enterprises and they will continue to engage with India irrespective of the outcome. It remains to be seen how Modi, if elected to power, would strike a balance between the country’s stated stand on political issue while adopting the Chinese model of economic development in the country.

China seems to have sensed the possibility of Modi catapulted to the office of Prime Minister. The Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jiping is known to have expressed his desire to visit India later in 2014 to engage with the new government. This would be his first trip to India after taking over as President in March 2013. The proposed visit demonstrates that the Chinese leadership is keen to engage with the new government in India.

Though bilateral economic ties are on sound footing, India continues to face huge trade deficit to the tune of $35 billion and India is keen to address this issue and seek means to correct this imbalance. Increased investment from China and increased access to China of Indian IT and pharmaceutical products could mitigate to some extent to this imbalance. Both the countries are concerned over the return of Taliban and Al-Qaeda. In particular, Beijing is worried that their rise could have a destabilising effect on its Muslim Uygur Xinjiang province which is experiencing a spat of terrorist attacks.

The message that the strategic dialogue sends is both sides are committed to continuity in policies at a functional level, though political engagement must wait till a new leadership takes office in India. This dialogue will be followed by a high-level military-level dialogue in New Delhi in April itself. A PLA delegation led by the Deputy Chief of General Staff, L. Gen. Qi Jianguo will visit for DGMO-level talks on the boundary issue on 22 April. It will be during this time, the annual defence exercises to be held later in 2014 will be finalised. The forthcoming visit of Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan later in 2014 is going to be equally significant. The participation of stealth frigate INS Shivalik in an international fleet review being hosted by China marking the 65th anniversary of PLA’s Navy North Sea Fleet is yet another move to build cooperative relationship.

It is usual for the foreign investors in India, they often complain about lack of consistency in India’s investment policy towards foreign firms. The Chinese are no exception. In particular, the Chinese investors in the power and telecom sectors complain that the investment environment offered by India is unfriendly. It is natural for a country with one-party political system to deal with the Centre and States in a democratic India that China sees as frustrating. Yet, the Modi government succeeded in wooing the Chinese in projects in Gujarat. In fact, between 2009 and 2012, three BJP Chief Ministers — including Madhya Pradesh’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Karnataka’s B.S. Yeddyurappa — visited China at the invitation of the Communist Party of China (CPC). On the other hand, no Congress Chief Minister visited the country during this period. The only other major visit by a State-level leader in this time was by Nitish Kumar from Bihar. During his visit to Beijing in 2011, Modi succeeded in signing an agreement for a Rs. 2,500 crore green energy park in Gujarat. This shows that Modi has already built up rapport with China, which will help in consolidating economic and political ties between the two countries when he takes over power in May. China sees the likely outcome in the elections under Modi’s leadership and policy towards China to be as “interest-oriented and not party-oriented. India-China ties are likely to rise above from purely bilateral level to the regional and global level as Modi told the Chinese investors that “the two countries will make Asia centre stage of the global economy”. If this really happens, the new Modi mantra will be the buzz word for the coming decades.

If this is the likely scenario, how does one accept the argument that Modi advised China should shed its expansionist attitude, implying thereby that India will get tougher on territorial disputes with China? At a rally in Arunachal Pradesh on 22 February, Modi had said “I swear in the name of the soil that I will protect this country”, implying that his policy towards India’s neighbour would be more muscular. The likely policy of India towards its neighbour would be a policy that is economy-driven, which means to build the economy to put it on a sound footing so that one can deal with other countries on its own terms.

In this perspective, one can gauge that Modi is likely to adopt the Gujarat model for the rest of the country. While courting investment from China, Modi would steer a course between defending the country’s security interests, while deepening economic links with the world’s second largest economy. Being a great admirer and follower of the BJP stalwart and former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee who ordered a series of nuclear tests in 1998, thereby adopting a strategy on both Shakti and Shanti (power and peace), Modi is likely to adopt a similar approach to deter China from being adventurous.

(The writter, Dr. Rajaram Panda, is the Japan Foundation Fellow at the Reitaku University, Japan. E-mail: rajaram.panda@gmail.com)

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