Chinese views of Narendra Modi’s election victory are interesting for a number of reasons. One, there are implications for China’s own political system about a democracy’s ability to provide a clear majority to a ‘decisive’ leader. Two, there are hopes for a more pragmatic relationship and greater speed on the economic side of the relationship. And three, there is evidence of an increasingly sophisticated understanding of India’s internal politics. Prime Minister Modi, meanwhile, has an advantage in having visited China before in his capacity as Chief Minister of Gujarat but the Chinese are still unsure if this necessarily means either greater friendliness or an ability to better understand China and its national interests.
Indian Elections and China’s Domestic Concerns
India’s elections and Narendra Modi’s decisive victory have been keenly watched in China even if this would not be evident looking at just the official Chinese-language media. And this is not surprising for two reasons. One, of course, is the usual – that if another country of a billion plus can have democratic elections, why not China? This logic has been countered over the years not by any great Chinese effort as much as by India’s own inability over the decades to increase the fruits of development or to share the resulting prosperity widely and equitably. India’s economic reforms and near-China rates of growth threatened to upend this logic for a while, but India again slipped back into a period of low growth following the global financial crisis alongside having a central government plagued by corruption and policy paralysis.
The Hu Jintao era too, is seen as a ‘wasted decade’ in many respects, in an era of increasing expectations of ordinary Chinese. However, Xi Jinping’s actions since his arrival as CPC General Secretary have marked him as a decisive leader fighting corruption at home and defending Chinese interests abroad. The Chinese system is thus seen as being capable of correcting itself and throwing up the right kind of leaders as required at a particular point of time. The Indian system, by contrast, was hitherto seen as one in which coalition politics was here to stay and would end up constraining Modi or any other capable leader elected to power at the centre.
That the Indian elections did end up giving Modi a decisive majority is the second reason why coverage and commentary about the Indian elections have been confined to the English media from China, and often including those written by Indians themselves. From a domestic point of view, the issue for the CPC with Modi’s election is a simple one, if India’s messy, complicated democracy has in it, the ‘wisdom’ to produce a clear majority for a leader seen as capable of getting things done for the country, then how are the ‘meritocratic’ but limited-franchise methods of the CPC better than India’s democracy? Thus, the Chinese hailing of Modi’s victory and his perceived friendship with China is also part of a carefully constructed propaganda effort designed to limit the victory to the functional – of economic cooperation with India, for example – while also countering the victory ideologically.
At the same time, while Modi is called ‘pragmatic’, and he has ‘actively learned the experience in China’s reform and opening up’, he is also not Deng Xiaoping, nor is Gujarat like Guangdong – clearly implying that the Chinese model and China’s leaders are unique or superlative in a way India cannot match. Any equivalence would call into question the CPC’s rationale for staying in power. For the Chinese political machinery, it is important to continue to call into question the real worth and effectiveness of India’s democracy, by references, for example, to India’s obsession with China, its poor social indicators, its ‘myriad conflicts’ and the fact that post-election, Modi continued to face ‘grim realities’.
Chinese Concerns on the Bilateral Front
On the one hand, there is hope that Modi can ‘rewrite ties’. Even as the Western media is accused of ‘fomenting discord between China and India’ by portraying Modi as ‘India’s Abe’ and as likely to take a tough stance against China, the official Chinese attempts are to maintain an even keel in the bilateral relationship, with references to ‘friendly relations’, ‘common interests’ and joint contributions ‘to regional and global peace and development’.
On the other hand, even though Chinese analysts acknowledge India’s importance to China because of its size, and for strategic and economic reasons, many are still unsure about Modi’s attitude towards Beijing. There is thus an attempt to remind the world of India’s hyphenation with Pakistan, indicating perhaps worries that a nationalist Modi and BJP might also complicate ties with China through a closer partnership with the US and a stronger line on the boundary dispute. On Tibet, for example, the Chinese noted that Lobsang Sangay, Sikyong of the Central Tibetan Administration had been invited to Modi’s swearing in. By all accounts and by Chinese standards, this is a provocation to Beijing. Similarly, the Chinese cannot fail to be concerned about the appointments to key government positions of prominent members of the Vivekanda International Foundation, a think-tank known for strongly pro-Tibet views. Ajit Doval, the new Indian National Security Adviser, for example, was Director of the Foundation.
During his visit to India in June, however, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s reply to a question on the subject of Tibet was carefully calibrated. He called Tibet ‘a major concern in China’, and that China hoped ‘India handles this problem well’. He referred to how neighbors ‘should take care of each other’s concerns’. At no point did he give an air of inflexibility by calling Tibet a ‘core interest’. He restated India’s acknowledgment ‘that the Tibet Autonomous Region is a part of the territory of People’s Republic of China’ as ‘the established policy of the Indian government’ and declared that ‘The Modi government has reaffirmed the commitments’ on this score.
Also, in this vein, any cooperation with Japan in the political and economic realms is seen as a continuation of the policies of the Manmohan Singh government. To comparisons of Modi with Abe, the Chinese effort at present is to create a distinction between the two saying that India was not like Japan, and nor was it subservient to the Americans.
The Chinese may also be willing to give Modi a long rope since he has never been in charge of India’s foreign affairs and has travelled frequently to China and, therefore, assign most of his views with respect to China, including those he expressed during the election campaign, as mere rhetoric or as part of the established policies of India and those espoused by the previous government.
That said, Chinese analysts and, no doubt, the Chinese government, are certainly prepared also to deal with the consequences of Modi turning out to be a hardliner on China after all. It must be noted that there is a subtle criticism of Modi already inbuilt into the narrative – with references to his ‘authoritarian rule in Gujarat and actions during the 2002 riots’ and the possibility ‘that he may fan religious conflicts’, and references to the border issue as the biggest obstacle in bilateral ties. This might well be in order to ensure that there is a logical strand in the current discourse that can be extracted for explaining any future flat-lining or deterioration in ties.
Considerations for India
The arrival of Narendra Modi is for the Chinese, the arrival of a kind of leader they are used to dealing with in authoritarian countries; India is a country in their view where society is not as effective or influential in conveying influence once elections are over and done with. Thus, Modi is an Indian version of Vladimir Putin, but also rather more powerful nationally and internationally because he happens to be backed by a decisive electoral majority in free and fair elections in the world’s largest democracy.
How will the Chinese deal with this unique combination of circumstances? It seems likely that their approach to Modi will be strongly targeted at the individual and to concerns perceived as being important to Modi personally. Chinese business and think-tank delegations to India both before and in the wake of the elections have made sure to stop by at Gujarat, to both canvass Modi’s original constituency and to study the ‘Gujarat Model’. The prominence given to the number of times Modi has visited China or to a book on him targeted for publication in Chinese are of a piece with this approach, despite the fact that such a book flies in the face of the general Chinese approach to the role of religion and religious organizations or indeed, towards foreign political leaders.
This approach stems from a very particular Chinese understanding of India’s democracy, including a lack of faith in its ultimate potential to meet Indian national interests, as they conceive it. This more personalized approach to Modi indicates a hope of separating the individual from the nationalist and thereby keeping relations from fraying due to tensions over the boundary and other disputes. This line also suggests an increasing Chinese attention of Indian politics including of intra-party dynamics and of individual leaders.
In the larger bilateral relationship, meanwhile, as one Chinese analyst has pointed out, the new the Indian Prime Minister is in an ‘advantaged position to seek a breakthrough in relations together with Chinese leaders, especially in solving long-standing border disputes’ because, the BJP unlike the Congress (I) does not carry the historical burden of the Sino-Indian boundary dispute. Could this then mean that the Chinese are ready to take advantage of Modi’s strong mandate to achieve progress on the boundary dispute? This is unlikely at least in Xi Jinping’s first term as he uses up his political capital in bringing down ‘tigers and flies’ in his extended anti-corruption campaign at home.
In the meantime, can Narendra Modi take advantage of the Chinese lack of surety regarding his intentions? Can the government and the BJP – which is being courted separately by the CPC – work together to send out the necessary signals to the Chinese side? This where the flip side of being seen as a decisive and powerful leader comes in – the BJP itself might not be seen as exercising independent voice or effective influence over the Modi government. Therefore, Modi as long as he appears the strongman, might only have a single channel of communication to the Chinese, that is, through his government, whereas it would have been useful to have other strong and independent links with the CPC through which to communicate ideas and thoughts about potential breakthroughs in the relationship.