Will Sino-Indian Relations Get 'Modi-fi ed'


Narendra Modi’s resounding victory in the election comes at a pivotal time in relations between India and China. Sino-Indian ties face a series of contradictory pressure in the realms of geopolitics and economics. The dramatic change in the geopolitical landscape of India and the gradual shift in power in Asia and the world create risks and opportunities for what is likely to become the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century, writes Brendan P O’Reilly

The success of the BJP and Modi in the recent election stemmed largely from popular dissatisfaction of the Indian electorate with the previous government. However, a strong element of nationalism also helped propel Modi to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) of the world’s largest democracy. This nationalism defines itself both in terms of a Hindutva ideology at home and a desire to be more assertive abroad, and could potentially lead to trouble between New Delhi and Beijing.

Modi showed a willingness to play the ‘China card’ on the campaign trail. During a campaign rally in Arunachal Pradesh, he strongly condemned Chinese claims over the state: “No power on earth can snatch away Arunachal Pradesh. Times have changed. The world does not welcome the mindset of expansion in today’s times. China will also have to leave behind its mindset of expansion.”

While such promises to uphold territorial integrity are, of course, fairly mainstream in Indian political thought, Modi has also specifically condemned the UPA’s handling of relations with China, saying: “We remained weak when we needed to be strong,”

With regards to India’s fraternal rival, and Beijing’s most reliable ally in South Asia, Modi was unrelenting in his criticism of Pakistan (and the perceived pro-Pakistani sympathies of his political rivals) while campaigning.

“There are three people who are being praised in Pakistan – they are three AKs. The first one is AK-47 that is used to spill the blood of innocents, the second is Defence Minister of India, AK Antony, who had said that those who beheaded the Indian soldiers were terrorists in Pakistan Army uniforms and the third is AK-49. This AK-49 just gave birth to a new party and on his party’s official website, the map shows Kashmir is given to Pakistan and one of his most trusted aides has favoured plebiscite in Kashmir….Pakistan’s papers are full of praise for them. They are enemies of the country. They speak in favour of Pakistan,” Modi had remarked.

New Dimension 

In recent years, Sino-Indian strategic confrontation has spread from the old issues of border disputes and the Sino-Pakistani alliance into new aquatic realms. Tensions between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea led to bloodshed as Vietnamese rioters attacked Chinese citizens.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs expressed concern over the dispute, saying, “We would like to see resolution of the issue through peaceful means in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law.”

This declaration drew a sharp rebuke from Beijing, which holds little patience for what it sees as outside interference in affairs related to Chinese territorial sovereignty. China’s foreign minister said: “I have so many times stated China’s position on the South China Sea. I wish to tell Indian people that they may not worry too much about the current situation in the South China Sea.”

Beijing’s prickly reaction to the Indian statement may be due to recent Indian efforts to jointly explore oil resources with Vietnam in the disputed area. The head of the Indian navy has previously stated India’s capability and potential willingness to deploy in the South China Sea: “When the requirement is there, for example, in situations where our country’s interests are involved…we will be required to go there and we are prepared for that. Now, are we preparing for it? Are we having exercises of that nature? The short answer is yes.” 

Meanwhile, both New Delhi and Washington are concerned that Chinese outreach to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka constitutes a ‘string of pearls’ strategy. This effort is seen as a means to secure Chinese influence over the Indian Ocean and strategically encircle India. Interestingly enough, China’s response to this accusation has been to invite India to join a new ‘Maritime Silk Road’ that can link the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia into a stable zone of free trade and development.

New Development Opportunities

It is in the realm of Sino-Indian economic cooperation that Modi’s victory brings real opportunities. Prime Minister Modi won the position as the leader of a sixth of humanity largely on his promises to deliver economic reform and growth to India. Hundreds of millions of Indians still live in dire poverty – a level of poverty that has been alleviated in China largely through liberalised economic policies, similar to what Modi promised his electorate.

China is India’s largest trading partner. India is now seen as an increasingly attractive investment destination for Chinese companies, as much of China’s low-hanging economic fruit has already been plucked.

Beijing has even offered to finance India’s infrastructure projects to the tune of $300 billion over the next several years.  Prime Minister Modi – who visited China four times to seek greater economic cooperation in the years before his election – seems aware of the huge potential for mutual benefit. 

Chinese state-controlled media has focussed on the economic aspect of relations when covering Modi’s recent victory. Sina News features a story entitled ‘The Inauguration of Prime Minister Modi: Experts Say Sino-Indian Economic Cooperation is Still a Big Trend.’ The article covers the political mood in India in a relatively unbiased fashion, and features some analysis that is generally optimistic with regards to bilateral relations between China and India.

Beijing’s main strategic concern with regard to India is a fear that New Delhi may join the Washington-Tokyo alliance that is tacitly aimed at containing China’s rise. The piece in Sina News features a reassuring quote from Wang Shida of the South China Institute for Contemporary International Relations: “For half a century India has adhered to an independent foreign policy, it will not take the position as a ‘little brother’ to any big country, it will not completely base its foreign policy according to the interests of the United States”.

Proactive Engagement 

The BJP’s election manifesto has promised to maintain exactly such an independent policy: “Instead of being led by big power interests, we will engage proactively on our own with countries in the neighbourhood and beyond.”

American support for Pakistan, India’s friendly ties with Russia, the recent spat over an Indian diplomat in New York, and even the previous inability of Modi himself to get a visa to visit the United States create opportunities for Beijing to court New Delhi away from Washington in the arena of global politics. 

India is increasingly recognised as a world power in its own right, and Chinese leaders have shown a willingness to accommodate their giant rival and neighbour. Chinese President Xi Jinping has signalled his desire to visit post-election India to make progress on bilateral ties with the new government. 

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying’s first official reaction to India’s election results was particularly optimistic: “Bilateral relations are faced with new development opportunities. Maintaining close and friendly relations is in the interest of the Chinese and Indian people and is also conducive to regional and world peace and stability. China is willing to make joint efforts with the new Indian government, maintain a high level of exchanges, deepen exchanges and cooperation in all areas and bring the China-India strategic partnership to a new height.”

The only geopolitical area in which Sino-Indian relations remain a zero-sum game is in the contentious border dispute. Even in the strategic arena, both powers share immense common interests in maintaining regional peace and economic development. This is especially true given the nuclear realities of the modern age. 

After the successful test launch of the Agni V in April, China’s Foreign Ministry was surprisingly congratulatory regarding India’s improved ballistic capabilities: “China and India are large developing nations. We are not competitors but partners ... We believe that both sides should cherish the hard-won good state of affairs at present, and work hard to uphold friendly strategic cooperation to promote joint development and make positive contributions towards maintaining peace and stability in the region.”

Developing Friendly Rivalry

Finally, the areas in which there is intense rivalry are also the areas for potential mutual understanding. As masters of large, ancient and culturally diverse nations, the primary political objectives of both New Delhi and Beijing are internal stability and territorial integrity. Modi’s criticism of Chinese claims over Arunachal Pradesh and Chinese anger over perceived Indian interference in the South China Sea dispute stem from similar impulse. 

If the governments of India and China can define their core internal interests, their rivalry can develop in a friendly manner. As Min Ye, director of the Asian Studies Program at Boston University told China Outlook: “The Chinese government is likely to cooperate, as the leaders badly need to stabilise border issues and improve economic ties with India, and also because the border issue with India has not become a nationalist hot button, as the maritime tension with Japan and Southeast Asia.”

Modi on the campaign trail showered harsh rhetoric on China and its allies in Islamabad. Prime Minister Modi may have to steer his people through regional and global transformations in a more diplomatic manner. The fate of a third of humanity – and perhaps more – depends on a relationship that is fraught with both immense potential and perilous possibilities.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.