Interpreting Prime Minister Modi’s China Approach

Originally published as ‘Interpreting Modispeak on China’The Hindu (Chennai), 14 May 2015.

As Indian Prime Ministers and political leaders go, Narendra Modi is unique in possessing some significant experience of that country before attaining office. In fact, despite – or perhaps, because of – the differences in world views and how he has gone about understanding China, Modi is probably the first Prime Minister after Jawaharlal Nehru, capable of shaping a uniquely different approach to China.

From Nehru to Modi

The differences between the two Prime Ministers also show how both China and the Sino-Indian relationship have changed over time. For one, until the defeat of 1962, Nehru looked at China in anti-colonial and anti-imperialist solidarity and so, promoted communist China’s membership of international organizations and participation in international affairs. This is not to say that he did not understand the geopolitical challenges posed by another large country next door that had a length of history and greatness of civilization equal to that of India, a population of similar size and, importantly, a different political ideology at home. But Nehru also believed that India and China had the potential to do much together to reshape the world for the better.

Modi’s four visits to China as chief minister of Gujarat have been predicated on a vastly different world situation than the one that confronted Nehru. First, while the Cold War has ended the two most important powers in the world today, the US and China, continue to be rivals. Given that this rivalry has shifted closer home, India is harder pressed to formulate some sort of a response amidst its own internal political and economic churning.

Second, it is without doubt that India has fallen considerably behind China in terms of its world standing. Perhaps, it is the lack of political cachet in comparison with China – represented by the lack of a UN Security Council permanent seat and membership to the NPT – that hurts India most. India under Nehru had presence and held attention in world forums. Until Modi came along, India appeared content to rest on past laurels or to portray significance through an alphabet soup of multilateral groupings that either did not produce any useful results or challenged the existing world order without quite the necessary wherewithal.

Third, unlike Nehru who dominated India’s decision-making and thinking on foreign policy issues, India now has chief ministers of states travelling abroad and engaging with other countries and who are increasingly influential at the Centre on foreign policy. Chief Ministers from Tamil Nadu on Sri Lanka and from West Bengal on disputes with Bangladesh are obvious examples. As Chief Minister, Modi himself has had held forth on foreign policy matters including reportedly helping in 2012 to achieve the release of some Gujarati diamond traders arrested in China.

Of Politics and Ideology

Coming to Modi’s China agenda, while it may appear mostly economic in nature, this is probably the result of extrapolating from his record as Gujarat Chief Minister and identity at home of being focused on development. However, politics and ideology seem at least as important to Modi as economics.

Take for one, what the symbolism of Modi’s interactions with various world leaders suggests. Modi’s ‘bearhug diplomacy’ with Shinzo Abe of Japan, Tony Abbot of Australia and Barack Obama of the US stood in contrast to the rather polite welcome to Xi Jinping in Ahmedabad last year. Modi clearly knows who he thinks are India’s friends and partners.

Two, the invitation to the Sikyong of the Central Tibetan Administration and the Taiwanese representative in India to Modi’s swearing-in in May 2014, should not be forgotten. These are no small political statements coming from a leader who purely as a practical matter understands the importance of attracting Chinese investment to India.

Cultural Agenda

Three, Modi appears to have a rather audacious politico-cultural agenda in his foreign policy. He cannot but be aware of the Dalai Lama’s mortality, the Sino-Tibetan debate over his reincarnation and the puppet Chinese Panchen Lama being propped as a rival to the Dalai Lama’s influence. Modi will continue India’s challenge to Chinese attempts to hijack the global Buddhist agenda. The Indian Prime Minister has frequently and confidently highlighted India-China Buddhist links. Given China’s current political realities, references to Buddhism in the India-China context are likely to be a favoured method for Modi to highlight its Indian origins, India’s role in protecting and preserving Tibetan culture, and its legitimacy in challenging any narrative that China might offer. The trip to Mongolia is also surely part of this approach. Overall, it is Modi who comes across as more convincing than the Chinese when he makes philosophical and metaphysical allusions as in India and China being ‘two bodies with one spirit’. He thus, also shows up the contradiction of China’s communists attempting to parlay Confucian ideology or Buddhism as a tool of Chinese soft power.

Meanwhile, Modi’s outreach to the Indian diaspora on his foreign visits and now, including in Shanghai, show there is also what could be called a ‘Greater India’ agenda at work here. ‘Greater India’ would both draw inspiration from and transcend the RSS’ Akhand Bharat idea that often includes Tibet, and which is based on historical ties but also limited by geographical contiguity. This then, attempts to copy China’s success in tapping its own diaspora in the reforms era.

at the Shanghai World Expo Exhibition and Convention Center on 16 May 2015
at the Shanghai World Expo Exhibition and Convention Center on 16 May 2015

Challenging the New Silk Roads

Four and related, Modi’s government has not surprisingly, maintained a studious silence on China’s new Silk Roads or ‘one belt, one road’ (OBOR) initiative. While engaging with the initiative makes eminent economic sense for India, there are some Chinese notes that jar historically and culturally for India. By converting the Silk Road story into a narrative of trade and economic cooperation but without much reference to the flow of ideas, including Buddhism, along these same routes, Beijing is trying to reinterpret history for its current purposes. The Indian silence thus is a challenge and reminder of the very different political and religious history that the so-called Silk Roads represented.

However, silence or inaction is also not a sustainable option for India – the OBOR seeks to fundamentally reshape not just economic development models and networks but also political relations and ideologies in China’s neighbourhood and thus, poses an unprecedented and multidimensional challenge to India. Project Mausam is designed to explore and reinvigorate India’s historical links with the Indian Ocean region fitting in with Modi’s cultural agenda but in its current shape, offers little or no strategic challenge to OBOR. Ultimately, history and politics will be (re)written by the economically dominant and OBOR could lead to a situation where Beijing exercises influence over nations despite the borders between them.

one of 2 pillars from a medieval era Hindu temple now part of a Buddhist temple complex in Quanzhou, Fujian province, China
from one of two pillars from a medieval era Hindu temple now part of a Buddhist temple complex in Quanzhou, Fujian province, China

Boundary Dispute

What then of the boundary dispute? Taken together, the above aspects of Modi’s foreign policy suggest that while Modi might be willing to be practical and acknowledge that Tibet is today, part of China, his cultural agenda might also require that any resolution also offer India greater, regular and multifaceted access to Tibet than is the case today. Hence, the opening of another route to Kailash Manasarovar through Sikkim and even the short-lived plan, if ever it was one, that the Prime Minister would travel to the holy mountain during his China visit.

The induction of Kiren Rijiju from Arunachal Pradesh into the Modi cabinet, confirms India’s red lines but like the potential of the OBOR to make borders inconsequential, the cultural agenda of a ‘Greater India’, too, could mean that lines on a map are unnecessary to legitimate and further Indian influence in Tibet and elsewhere in China’s periphery. This then could make the inevitable redrawing of India’s map that a solution will involve, more palatable.

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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