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Prime Minister Narendra Modi may be admired in china, and his development agenda might have enlisted the country as an economic partner, but there are crippling issues that could affect the bonhomie.

By Col Ramani Hariharan

 

 


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 Naren-dra 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 mandate.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs of People's Republic of China, Mr. Wang Yi calling on the Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, in New Delhi on June 09, 2014.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs of People’s Republic of China, Mr. Wang Yi calling on the Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi, in New Delhi on June 09, 2014.

Despite the rhetoric at play during his visit, Yi had a limited scope to feel the pulse of the new Indian leadership under Modi. The Chinese mandarins are not going to find this easy. Modi has asserted that he leads from the front. He has shown his uncanny ability to spring surprises upon the opposition andthe regional satraps.

Modi’s near hour-long meeting with the Chinese visitor was significant. It showed the importance the prime minister attaches to India’s relationship with China. On the foreign policy front, the “Modi touch” has had its effect too. This could be seen in the invitation to the SAARC heads of government to attend his swearing-in function followed by his first overseas visit to Bhutan.

Several actions of the Modi government close on the heels of Yi’s visit touched upon some of China’s “core interests” and strategic security concerns. These actions give a clear indication of the emerging Indian security perspective on China.

Territorial integrity

China protested against the presence of Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government- in-exile, at the Modi’s oath taking ceremony. It promptly sent off a demarche to India protesting against the invitation to Sangay, as it considers any public recognition of the Tibetan issue as an affront to its territorial integrity. Further ruffling Chinese feathers was Modi’s Facebook post describing Sangay as “an honorable guest of the BJP”.

Border issues

There are indications that India will be speeding up infrastructure development along its border with China. These were deferred as the Manmohan Singh regime did not want to ruffle China’s sensitivities on this count. The home ministry has agreed in principle to the setting up of 54 new Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) border posts along Arunachal Pradesh with the likely increase in ITBP strength by 50,000 people. The increase in border posts would help improve India’s security posture in this disputed region.

Apart from raising an additional mountain strike corps for this region, India is adding a number of advanced landing grounds for air support to the troops. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has already indicated that faster environmental clearances would be given to border roads and strategic defense infrastructure projects in these areas that are pending with his ministry. This would mean a speedier completion of 80 road projects within 100 kilometers from the Line of Actual Control on the northern border with China.

Ocean security

The environment ministry has also cleared a proposal to install a radar station at Narcondam Island in the Andaman Nicobar Command. This ocean listening station would help the armed forces to monitor Chinese activity in the Coco Island off the Myanmar coast, close to Northern Andaman. These steps indicate India’s determination to assert its naval superiority in the Indian Ocean region, where Chinese navy had been increasingly asserting their presence.

Relations with Japan

Indo-China War (1962) Memorial, Tawang
Indo-China War (1962) Memorial, Tawang

China would keenly watch Modi’s scheduled meeting with his Japanese counterpart on the sidelines of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit in Brazil from July 15 to 17. Modi’s parleys with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe assumes significance as it precedes his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the four-nation summit. The meeting would be critical for China as Modi enjoys a personal rapport with his Japanese counterpart, and this could turn the summit meet to trigger a few strategic security initiatives.

The Chinese may find these reports difficult to digest as they had been accustomed to browbeating India in the past.

Favoured by china

Modi has some positives that could help him build a win-win relationship with China. First is Modi’s familiarity with China and his admiration for its development model. As chief minister of Gujarat, he had visited China three times. All the visits had productive development agendas. The first visit in November 2006 was to study the Special Economic Zones. In September 2007, he led a delegation of Gujarati entrepreneurs to the port city of Dailan in Northeast China—the second largest container trans-shipment hub in China. Modi’s third visit to China in 2011 secured the unconditional release of 13 diamond merchants of Gujarat who were jailed in Shenzhen for alleged violation of customs norms.

Jinping’s message to 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 could be an indication how Jinping would like China-India relations to develop.

Nathu La Pass Indo China Border by_Nitin_Ticku
Nathu La Pass Indo China Border by_Nitin_Ticku

Modi’s warm reciprocation of the Chinese sentiments in his talks with the special envoy 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 parliament underlines the importance attached to India’s relationship with China. Modi’s economic development plans presented in the agenda and his top ten priorities to shore up the nation’s economy provide a number of investment and business opportunities for China. 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.

Future at stake

However, we may not see a dramatic change in China’s conduct on the border in the near term. 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, improvement in personal equations between Modi and Chinese premier, Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping in the coming months would determine the progress of India’s relationship with China. Chinese leaders would be factoring it in India policy to suit the assertive leadership style of the Modi government.

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