China’s reading of India’s foreign policy trend
by R Hariharan on 04 Jul 2014 1 Comment

The two-day visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as President Xi Jinping’s Special Envoy to New Delhi within three weeks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi assuming office underlines China’s keenness, if not anxiety, in building bridges with the Indian leader who has come to power with a massive personal mandate.


In spite of all the flowery rhetoric at play during Wang Yi’s visit, he probably had a limited agenda to feel the pulse of the new Indian leadership under Narendra Modi. This is not going to be an easy exercise because Modi has shown he leads from the front with an assertive style and ruthlessly pursues his objectives. His campaign style and later his utterances in office have shown his uncanny ability to spring surprises upon the Opposition and regional satraps. 


Prime Minister Modi spending 45 minutes with the Chinese visitor despite a heavy schedule is significant and shows the importance he attached to India’s relationship with China and the wide range of issues that probably figured in the meeting. Chinese leadership is likely to be pleased with this as the new Indian government has sent a number of confusing signals on some of China’s key concerns regarding India.


On the foreign policy front, the “Modi touch” had its effect: his invitation to the SAARC heads of government to attend his swearing-in function and the announcement that Bhutan would be the destination of his first overseas visit. Bhutan has close strategic relations with India and like India has an ongoing dispute over China’s claims over Bhutanese territory. By all accounts, the visit went well.


Concerns on core interests


Some actions of the Modi government, even before it completed a month in office, touch upon some of China’s “core interests” and strategic security concerns. And they have come close on the heels of the visit of the Special Envoy. These actions give some inkling into the emerging Indian security perspective on China.


Territorial integrity: China could not ignore the presence of Lobsang Sangay, political head of the so-called Tibetan government-in-exile, at the Prime Minister’s oath taking function. It promptly sent off a demarche to India protesting against the invitation as it considers any public recognition of the Tibetan exile set up as an affront to its territorial integrity. Added to this is Modi’s Facebook entry which said Sangay was “an honourable guest of the Bharatiya Janata Party,” indicating the possibility of the Tibetan issue gathering mass at a later date.


Inviolability of national borders: There were indications that India would be speeding up infrastructure development work along its border with China. These were probably deferred as the Manmohan Singh regime did not want to ruffle China’s sensitivities on this count. 


a. The Home Ministry has agreed on principle to the setting up of 54 new Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) border posts in Arunachal Pradesh with the likely increase in ITBP strength by 50,000 troops. The increase in border posts would help improve India’s security posture in this disputed region. Already raising of an additional mountain strike corps for this region is underway and a number of advanced landing grounds for air support are also being added. In the past, the Chinese have been reacting to any Indian effort to improve the infrastructure in their “claimed” territory on the Northern borders of India.


b. Close on the heels of the report on ITBP came environment minister Prakash Javadekar’s  indication that faster environmental clearances would be given to pending border roads and strategic defence infrastructure projects in border areas. This means speedier completion of 80 road projects within 100 km from the Line of Actual Control on the Northern border with China. This region has been the scene of a number of violations by Chinese troops who had been objecting to improvement of road communication on the Indian side. 


Indian Ocean security: The Environment Ministry has also cleared a proposal to install a radar station at Narcondam Island in the Andaman Nicobar Command. This six-year old proposal would help the armed forces to monitor reported Chinese activity in the Coco Island off Myanmar coast, very close to the Northern Andaman. The Prime Minister visit on June 14 to the newly acquired aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya to see its capabilities at sea indicates India’s determination to assert naval superiority in the Indian Ocean region, where Chinese navy had been progressively increasing its presence. 


Strategic relations with Japan: At a time when China’s relations with Japan are turning increasingly confrontational, China would watch the Indian Prime Minister’s planned meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe [July 3-4 meeting postponed – ed]. Modi may still meet his Japanese counterpart before he meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in Brazil later in July. The personal rapport he enjoys with his Japanese counterpart could trigger a few strategic security initiatives. 


Building on the positives for a win-win relationship


The Chinese have been accustomed to browbeat India in the past, but Prime Minister Modi has some positives that could help build a win-win relationship. First, he is familiar with China and admires its development model. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, he had visited China three times. All visits had productive development agendas. The first visit in November 2006 was to study the Special Economic Zones while in September 2007 he led a delegation of Gujarati entrepreneurs to the port city of Dailan, the second largest container transshipment hub in northeast China. The Gujarat development model including the huge infrastructure and special economic zones have benefitted from Chinese experience and expertise and can help China improve its equation with the Indian Prime Minister. His visit to China in 2011 probably secured the unconditional release of 13 diamond merchants of Gujarat who were jailed in Shenzhen for alleged violation of customs norms.


Xi Jinping’s message (conveyed by the Special Envoy) to Prime Minister Modi praising his leadership and inviting him to “work together to achieve peaceful cooperation and inclusive development for the benefit of our two people and in the interest of peace, stability and prosperity in Asia and in the world” tries to build upon the existing positives of Modi’s personal equation with China. Its reaffirmation of China’s positive perception of India’s role in the world and expectation and desire for pursuing bilaterally their development dreams is probably an indication how Xi would like China-India relations to develop.


Modi’s warm reciprocation of the Chinese sentiments in his talks with the Special Envoy emphasizing the potential for greater cooperation and to work for mutually beneficial trade and investment as economic partners probably reflects his expectations. The inclusion of plans to energetically engage with China to further develop strategic and cooperative partnership in the Modi government’s agenda presented by President Pranab Mukherjee’s address to the parliament underlines the importance of this relationship. Modi’s economic development plans presented in the agenda and his top ten priorities to shore up the economy provide a number of investment and business opportunities for the Chinese. So till the relationship with the Indian government is established on a firm footing, China is likely to focus on these opportunities rather than allowing the negatives to dissipate them.


Given the elephantine memory of the Chinese and their penchant for choosing their initiatives at tactically advantageous moments, in the near term we may not see dramatic change on their conduct on the border. This is confirmed by Wang Yi’s facile justification of border intrusions in the North as well as the issue of stapled visas at his press conference in New Delhi. However, probably the improvement in personal equations of Prime Minister Modi with Prime Minister Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping in coming months would determine the speed and destination of India’s relationship with China.


To summarise, Modi seems to have given sufficient indications to China that while he is holding out a hand in friendship, he also has a mailed fist on the other. Chinese leaders would be factoring this in while tailoring their India policy to suit the changed assertive leadership style of the new Indian government.


Author’s Note: This analysis of China’s reading of the pulse of India’s foreign policy changes under Prime Minister Narendra Modi was mainly written on June 13, 2014. A Global Times article on Modi’s visit welcomed the visit. Modi’s Japan visit will now take place in the second half of July due to the Budget.

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top