Written by Nimmi Kurian.

There are reasons why the clichéd idiom of change that has characterised Modi’s China policy has managed to capture the public and political imagination. Some of this also has to do with the way Modi has positioned himself with the carefully scripted image of a doer and a practitioner of the art of the possible. But it has been in many ways a conflicted narrative not unlike the oxymoron that is Modi, a creator and prisoner of binaries. Shorn of its trappings, India’s China policy today is virtually caught in a double vision alternating between engagement and disengagement, cooperation and competition. Going forward, the critical question is, just how much change and continuity can such a conflicted narrative withstand? And unless it addresses these contradictory impulses, Modi’s China policy could end up being neither fish nor fowl. But can a polarising figure break the mould and change a polarised discourse?

A string of geopolitical run-ins including China’s decision to block India’s move at the United Nations to designate Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist, its decision to block India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the recent India-China standoff at Doklam are signs of a relationship under considerable strain.

This will entirely depend on what sort of a bargain Modi chooses to strike with China. To begin with, he seems to have got the optics right with a feel-good narrative of shared prosperity and growth. In his greeting to the Chinese people on China’s National Day on 1 October 2015, he expressed confidence that the rise of India and China was a ‘great opportunity to realise our dream of an Asian century’. His pitch segues rather seamlessly into the larger narrative of India and China’s rapid economic growth. At $11 trillion, China is today the second-largest economy and the Indian economy is projected to become the third-largest in the world worth $6.84 trillion, surpassing Japan, Germany, Britain and France by 2030.

India-China bilateral trade has also expanded rapidly from a modest $2.92 billion in 2000 to cross $70 billion in 2017. The fact that Modi came to office with a fair degree of familiarity and knowledge of China has also lent an extra edge. As the Chief Minister of Gujarat from 2001-2014, Modi had led delegations to China four times and had actively wooed the Chinese business community for investments. And as Prime Minister since 2014, even as he continued the policy of economic engagement of his predecessors, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004) and Manmohan Singh (2004-2014), Modi projected a can-do approach of getting down to business without fuss. As part of his Make in India campaign, he invited Chinese companies to invest in proposed industrial parks in India.

High profile visits by Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Indian Prime Minister Modi promised big ticket investments such as the $20 billion Chinese investments for Chinese industrial parks committed during Xi’s visit to India in 2014 and a further $22 billion pledged during Modi’s return visit to China in 2015. According to the Chinese Vice-Minister for Finance Shi Yaobin, Chinese investments in India reached $4.07 billion by the end of 2016, rising from a paltry $102 million in 2011. Modi’s government gave security clearances in 2015 to 18 Chinese firms to set up offices in India in various sectors. As part of the Make in India campaign, the Indian government gave approval to Chinese telecom giant Hauwei Telecoms to set up its manufacturing and logistics base in India.

The fly in the ointment in this budding South-South success story however is that it happens to sit at odds with a geopolitical contest brewing in slow motion, that has been in the making for a while now between India and China. For this reason, the metaphor of change could well be one of crisis if one goes by the recent geopolitical trajectory in their relations. A string of geopolitical run-ins including China’s decision to block India’s move at the United Nations to designate Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist, its decision to block India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the recent India-China standoff at Doklam are signs of a relationship under considerable strain. Some of this has to do with the fact that India has set the bar of its engagement with China low, largely content with only ‘managing’ differences.

This is not to deny that the 1993 Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquility along the Line of Actual Control and the 1996 Agreement on Confidence Building Measures in the Military Field set down a firm and clear political direction towards conflict prevention. Under these, both sides agreed inter alia to not use their military capability against each other; to seek a mutually acceptable settlement of the border dispute, and pending a final settlement, to respect the Line of Actual Control. While important these have been, the trouble with conflict prevention is that it can at best, much like feel-good optics, imitate conditions of peace but seldom be a durable basis for one. The truth of the matter is that India-China relations are today stuck in a low-equilibrium trap as much by default as by design.

Will Modi see the crisis as a signalling opportunity to inform China where its red lines are in the evolving regional order in Asia? Will he be prepared to negotiate hard with China to institutionalise a new set of normative ground rules that could lend a measure of much needed geopolitical legibility in the process? But these are easier said than done. If at all Modi is attempting to bridge these binaries, he is certainly doing a good job of concealing it. And by refusing to engage with China’s One Belt One Road initiative, what sort of signal is Modi sending? Today, in a surreal way, the red lines India has drawn appear more to deter itself. Although Modi was widely expected to deliver results in his China policy when he came to power, could he actually end up delivering a first rate crisis?

Nimmi Kurian is Associate Professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, India. Image Credit: CC by Modi in China/ Wikimedia Commons.

 

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