Commentary / World

Modi's refreshingly novel outreach to Beijing

by Harsh V. Pant

For all the pomp and circumstance, the only thing that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to China will be remembered for will be his plain-speaking. And this is by no means a small achievement.

For years, Indian political leaders have gone to China and said what the Chinese wanted to hear. Modi changed all that when he openly “stressed the need for China to reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realizing full potential of our partnership” and “suggested that China should take a strategic and long-term view of our relations.”

In his speech at Tsinghua University, Modi went beyond the rhetorical flourishes of Sino-Indian cooperation and pointed out the need to resolve the border dispute and in the interim, clarify the Line of Actual Control, to “ensure that our relationships with other countries do not become a source of concern for each other.” This is a significant shift in Indian traditional defensiveness vis-a-vis China and should put the relationship on a firmer footing.

The Chinese are masters at beguiling their interlocutors. So even as Modi was being given a red-carpet welcome on his high-profile visit to China and Chinese leaders were expressing hopes that Sino-Indian ties can be taken to a new level, China’s state-owned television CCTV was showing India’s map without Jammu and Kashmir, and Arunachal Pradesh while reporting on the prime minister’s visit. There is a method to this Chinese madness, of course.

President Xi Jinping became the first Chinese head of state to visit India in eight years in September 2014 and was warmly welcomed by Modi. But the visit was overshadowed by a border crisis when Chinese troops entered Indian territory in Chumur, Ladakh.

Given this reality, it is vital that Indian leadership moves beyond rhetoric and insists on tackling the thorny issues that have been bedevilling the bilateral relationship for years now, making it difficult for it to achieve its full potential.

The boundary issue remains the biggest stumbling block. This military restiveness on the Sino-Indian border does not bode well for regional stability as the military balance on the long and contested border is rapidly altering in Beijing’s favor with upgrades of Chinese military and civilian infrastructure in Xinjiang and Tibet. China’s military modernization has far outpaced India’s, raising concerns about New Delhi’s ability to deter a limited conflict with its powerful neighbor.

Trade ties as well haven’t grown to the extent where they can ameliorate political tensions. China’s annual trade with India is only a fraction of its trade with Europe, Japan and the United States. Indian exports to China are dominated by raw materials such as iron ore.

The challenge confronting New Delhi is thus to match the level of Chinese exports to India and diversify the country’s export basket. Even as bilateral trade between China and India is moving toward the $70 billion mark, India’s trade deficit with China has soared from $1 billion in 2001-2002 to more than $40 billion. This rising trade deficit in China’s favor is problematic for India, as is the Indian failure to use its core competencies to enter the Chinese market.

Modi’s focus has been on engaging China economically to further India’s developmental needs. Underscoring Indian openness for business, Modi encouraged Chinese business to invest in India as firms signed deals worth more than $22 billion. Many of the contracts were for Chinese banks to finance Indian firms, and also included deals in the telecom, steel, solar energy and film sectors. Other agreements included an agreement for the China Development Bank to fund a power plant for Adani Power, as well as a steel project between Indian conglomerate Welspun and two Chinese firms.

Modi welcomed potential Chinese investment in sectors including housing, renewable energy, high-speed rail, subways, ports and airports, adding that India was eager to draw on China’s expertise in mass manufacturing.

While China’s rising profile in South Asia is not surprising, New Delhi’s concern about its own strategic presence in its periphery — South Asia and the Indian Ocean region — is growing. Even as China is becoming the largest trade partner of most states in South Asia, including India, New Delhi’s strategic hold on the region is weakening.

To New Delhi, China’s strategy toward South Asia seems premised on encircling India and confining it within the geographical coordinates of the region.This strategy of using proxies started with Pakistan and has gradually evolved to include Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

China is entering markets in South Asia more aggressively through both trade and investment, as well as improving links with South Asian states through treaties and bilateral cooperation. Following this up by building a ring network of roads and ports in India’s neighborhood and deepening military engagements with states on India’s periphery, China has firmly entrenched itself in New Delhi’s backyard.

China’s plans for a maritime Silk Road connected by cross-border infrastructure will further cement Beijing’s role in the region as regional states have lapped up China’s invitation to join this initiative. India has been invited as well, but it remains ambivalent about the project and has yet to make up its mind.

A consensus among elites is evolving in India that unlike other major global powers, China does not recognize India as a global power and does not show sensitivity to its core security concerns. As a consequence, China has replaced Pakistan as India’s primary security concern.

Ultimately, however, it is more about India’s own inability to get its act together. The challenge that China poses to India has been quite evident for some time now. Yet Indian policymakers have failed to galvanize their diplomatic corps and military sufficiently to manage the problem.

There are clearly new opportunities to significantly expand economic cooperation for mutual benefit and the Modi government is using Buddhism to encourage people to people contacts between China and India. The present government with its decisive mandate is better positioned than its predecessors to give a new direction to India’s China policy. Beijing should have used the prime minister’s visit to reach out to India more substantively than before.

A serious outreach to Modi is also essential in making sure that New Delhi does not gravitate rapidly to an emerging anti-China coalition in the larger Indo-Pacific region as the U.S. fashions its strategic rebalance. But once again China has shown that it is willing to muddle along when it comes to India, if only to keep India perpetually on the defensive. Modi has broken the mold and it will be an interesting ride moving forward.

Harsh V. Pant teaches in the Defense Studies Department at King’s College London with a focus on Asian security and is an adjunct fellow with the Wadhwani Chair at the CSIS in Washington.