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China’s Take on Narendra Modi

Paper No. 5698                                       Dated 12-May-2014

By Bhaskar Roy

China’s stated position remains that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of another country. Therefore, no comments have come from the Chinese government on the Indian general elections. To project their preference of a new government in India, the Chinese authorities are using the state controlled media.

The official English language daily Global Times (May 05) suggested that BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s victory could cause disquiet in the west. It reminded readers that western countries like the US had imposed sanctions against Mr. Modi for his alleged role in the communal riots of Gujarat in 2002, and the US still refuses to issue a visa to Modi.

The article went on to say that in its manifesto the BJP promises a multilateral diplomacy and the establishment of a “web of allies” to further India’s best national interest, which steers away from a tilt towards the US held by India in diplomacy in the past decades. This, according to the article, had caused worries in the west.

In the article’s opinion western countries like the US hope to use India to counterbalance China, but they do not support India on issues of the country’s “core interests”. In this context the article blamed US monetary policy for the devaluation of the Indian rupee and flight of capital from India. It also cited non-inclusion of India in the US sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The article proceeds to throw more doubt on the intentions of the US and the west, and projects an India-China-Russia cooperative mechanism to counter western pressure.

The article saw Narendra Modi as a strong leader of India who can build the country into a challenger to the west economically and politically. But it added some caution, saying it has been a policy of India to offset the negative effects of China’s rise by enhancing strategic cooperation with countries around China. The article did not see much change in this policy but also did not view Narendra Modi aggressively pursuing this line as prime minister.

The author of this article, Liu Zongyi is a research fellow at the premier Shanghai Institute for International Studies. This gives more weight to the article which appears to be a probe. Chinese President Xi Jinping is tentatively scheduled to visit India in September/October this year. Indians can be assured that Xi will visit at least two other countries of the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan may be one of them, though Premier Li Keqiang went to Pakistan last year after visiting India.

Chinese top leaders especially the president and the premier never make an “India only” visit to the subcontinent, and India may not figure on their itinerary during their other visits to the region. The visits are constructed to assure other countries of the subcontinent that in China’s foreign policy India does not figure as more important than them.  Pakistan, of course, is a special case of “all weather friendship” which China will not jeopardize in any way.

Although the Chinese are acquainted with Narendra Modi (Modi visited China a few times), they have not got a measure of his ideology, politics and latent foreign policy. One thing that everyone agrees upon is that he is a very determined person and is not afraid to call a spade a spade.

The Chinese have dealt with the UPA government led by Dr. Manmohan Singh for a decade. In his second term as Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh seemed weak and indecisive especially when dealing with China and Pakistan. Characteristically, Narendra Modi is very different from Dr. Singh. The Chinese wonder whether Mr. Modi’s approach in domestic politics will be reflected in his foreign policy. During a visit to North-East India in the course of his poll campaign Mr. Modi declared that the Chinese should not think in terms of expansionism- a remark not missed by the Chinese. The reference to China’s claims on Arunachal Pradesh and the western sector of the India-China border was clear.

The Chinese would be encouraged by Mr. Modi’s economic thought. He wants development. Here the Chinese hope to play a significant part especially in large infrastructural projects. They are likely to offer investment in such projects, all their heavy machinery and bring in as many Chinese workers as possible. If given an open door they may try to repeat the kind of exploitative policy they are practicing in African countries. This is an economic trap that India must not fall into.

The other issue is the Chinese interest in the informatics area. The Chinese are very advanced here, second only to the USA, especially in cyber warfare. This is a very sensitive area and any unguarded access to a foreign entity must be viewed with extreme caution. It may be recalled how the net virus Stuxnet allegedly developed by the US and Israel attacked an Iranian nuclear facility in 2012.

The third economic aspect is the bilateral trade imbalance. Bilateral trade reached a record high of $ 74 billion in 2011. It slipped to $ 65.47 billion in 2013. India’s trade deficit with China reached another high of $ 31.4 billion. The peculiarity of this bilateral trade pattern is that the main export of India to China is iron ore, a non-renewable natural resource which China needs for its growth. On the other hand, China has been dumping poor quality consumer goods in India, while stalling India’s exports like pharmaceuticals and software. There are a lot of problems in this sector which need to be resolved urgently.

The border issue can be kept aside for now. The Chinese want a stable, undisturbed border with India but no forward movement towards resolution. This would serve India well too.

Although Beijing is loath to admit it, the mandarins in Zhongnanhai are forced to admit that India’s position could be very important if not critical in the volatile affairs of East China Sea and South China Sea. For several years now China has been concerned with India’s relations with the US and, more recently with Japan. It still sees India joining hands with the US and Japan to counter China within the realm of possibility. Such suspicion was reinforced with US-India defence exchanges and growing acquisitions, a new initiative brought by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Asia, and India’s Look East policy.

Evidence suggests that China may have accelerated its moves to actively put its claims on the South China Sea into action. The recent establishment of an oil rig in South China Sea in an area claimed by both Vietnam and China led to a small clash. The Indian oil and gas company OVL Videsh Ltd is also engaged in drilling work in contract with Vietnam in the South China Sea.

In a larger perspective, China claims 85 per cent of the South China Sea and has made this a core interest. Chinese claims are increasingly tending towards the use of military power. India has major interest in having the lanes of the South China Sea open for trade and other purposes. Therefore, clash of interest and use of global commons may come up with India.

Beijing would like to come to some understanding with India on the South China Sea issue. An independent foreign policy pursued by India therefore will be preferable to China than India joining with other interested parties including the USA and Japan. The situation in the South China Sea is particularly disturbing. India would have to be prepared for reactions to different scenarios that may come up.              

(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst.  He can be reached at e-mail grouchohart@yahoo.com)       

 

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