Make China India’s natural ally for development

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India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is embarking on his first official State visit to China on May 14. This visit, coming few days before he completes one year in office, could turn out to be the defining moment of his ‘Act East’ foreign policy.

The visit will complete the tour of the Indian prime minister to the important countries of the world, notably the US, Japan, France, Germany, Australia, Canada. In all these countries, Modi’s special focus has been on the economic front.

Chinese President Xi Jingping was in fact one of the top world leaders to visit Delhi after Modi took over. Changing protocol, Modi had hosted him first in his home State, Gujarat. It was a grand welcome on the banks of river Sabarmati. However, that highly hyped visit, which came amidst the border tension following intrusion by Chinese troops, failed to deliver what was expected.

Now, Modi is going to Beijing — at a time when people in India are getting impatient over Modi’s failure to push growth the way people expected. During the election rallies, Modi had promised change. His campaign ran on the single mandate of ‘development’ (‘Vikas’ in Hindi). Development has naturally been the core focus that India needs, given the status of India’s economy, per capita income, infrastructure and demography where a million Indians enter the job market every month.

However, there is no denying that as Modi completes a year in the office this month, there prevails a sense of restlessness, especially on the issue of development, in many quarters. One of the reasons for this is the apparent conflict between India’s ‘development’ with India’s rising geopolitical ambitions.

If anchored well, the foreign policy can hugely complement India’s development agenda as it needs huge investments, and much of it has to come from overseas. However, if misaligned, the foreign policy may derail the same mandate of development. It is not necessary that India’s development mandate must have an either-or relationship with its geopolitical interests where one can be compromised for the other, more so the national security viewpoint of it. It also needs to be acknowledged that India’s geopolitical ambitions look appropriate and legitimate, considering India’s size and position. The key issue, difficult and complex as it is, becomes the timing and prioritizing these two key interests, if and when there remains a conflict between the two, given the external and internal environments presently confronting India. The challenge is to balance them, and PM Modi’s China visit could well be a test of it.

Modi has been aware of the importance of India’s foreign policy in achieving India’s development goal. During his first year in the office, Modi has received many regional and global leaders in India, as well as has made around fifteen State visits — a number significantly on the higher side for any Indian Prime Minister in his first year in office. He has repeatedly made investment appeals, in line with his ‘Make in India’ campaign, in all his discussions and speeches targeted for the richer nations.

The first major overseas visit, made by PM Modi, beyond the Indian sub-continent, was to Japan. Four of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), except the British Prime Minister David Cameron, had bilateral talks with PM Modi over the last year through mutual State visits. The exception with Cameron is understandable as the U.K. was facing election in this month.

The most notable of these high-profile visits was that of President Obama as the Chief Guest during India’s last Republic Day celebration. A leaked reading on this meeting, as reported in The New York Times, suggested that Modi talked about concerns on China at length, surprising President Obama and the visiting US officials.

Modi skipped visiting Beijing for the 26th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in last November, in spite of being the first Indian Prime Minister to receive an invitation from the host, Chinese President Xi Jinping. No convincing reasons were offered for declining that ‘tempting’ invitation that India had been seeking for a long time. What at best followed was scrambling about the nature of the invite — as an ‘observer’. Modi’s absence was termed to be the most ‘notable’ in the last APEC annual gathering. Modi attended the G20 Summit in Australia from the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN-Indian Summit.

Prime Minister Modi also shared his concerns about the South China Sea on multiple occasions — even when probably was not explicitly necessary. China’s sensitivity on both the South China Sea and The East China Sea is well-known.

Modi surely started off well in his foreign policy, with invitations to SAARC nations, and responded well by Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif. President Xi Jinping was the first major global leader to visit India post PM Modi’s swearing in. But in both these two cases, what followed were lack of trust.

Analysing the patterns of visits made by PM Modi so far, to all the non-Islamic nations in the SAARC block, and also to some of the geopolitically key island nations in the Indian Ocean, with that leaked New York Times report, it may make some, more so many in China, suspect that a key objective of Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy is to contain China, in covert or overt support with the U.S., Japan and other affected nations.

So, the key challenge PM Modi would face in China is to completely debunk that hypothesis, and focus on bilateral economic cooperation and development issues. This task is not surely going to be easy.

The global media, starting from the Japan Times on PM Modi’s Japan visit, to others on Modi-Obama chemistry have been largely unanimous that showmanship has often trumped substance in Modi’s foreign policy so far, with no significant gains.

China’s foreign policy, since the 1980s, has largely been driven by the famous dictum of Deng Xiaoping: ‘Hide your strength, bide your time’.

Deng’s philosophy led to the concept of ‘Peaceful Rise of China’. As the rise continues to be phenomenal with every passing year, China’s policymakers to military to citizens’ aspirations naturally grew, lately often posing a threat to that ‘Peaceful Rise’ concept itself. In spite of its economic stature today, China still continues to underplay its global responsibility often by defining itself with ‘still a developing nation’ card.

The recent successes of China with its diplomatic coup with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), its New Silk Road infrastructure plans as well as the setting up of the BRICS Development Bank have led to major realignment of powers at the regional and global level. Even US’s strategic partners like the UK has been forced to realign its relations with the rising China, strictly on a bilateral basis.

Last month, the Chinese President had visited Pakistan. He signed deals worth billions of dollars for Chinese investment in Pakistan, and has offered 110 JF-17s fighter aircrafts.

Neutral observers of India’s foreign policy would also admit that a sense of paranoia has always prevailed in India’s foreign policy towards Pakistan, and the same paranoia has spread to China as well in recent times.

For almost two millenniums, India and China had been the biggest economies of the world, until as late as the early part of the 19th century. And, 21st century is surely going to be Asia’s century, with likely repeat of such economic dominance from China. The question is would India be part of that, that too in a major way, as it did until the 19th century? Meaningful clues to this question would be clearer with the analysis of the outcomes from Modi’s China. Modi needs to be patient, acknowledging that no quick fix solutions to the long pending border disputes may emerge and maintaining a status quo on it is acceptable. But a status quo in the areas of economic cooperation would be damaging for India’s development agenda.

During the Cold-War era, India followed the non-alignment policy, rightly or wrongly. India would do well to maintain the same non-alignment in the present times too, for the time being, and till India’s time comes.

Courtesy : ORF – Make China India’s natural ally for development


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