China Makes Overture to India’s Modi II

  0 comments   |     by Melkulangara BHADRAKUMAR

There has been an excessive focusing on the ‘visa ban’ imposed by the United States on Narendra Modi since 2005 on the basis of the latter’s controversial role as Chief minister of Gujarat during the anti-Muslim riots in the state in 2002. Actually, the high drama centred around the issue, especially Modi’s refusal to apply for a US visa, only helped create an impression that India’s relations with the US would remain rocky under Prime Minister Modi. 

Nothing could be further from the actual state of play. In reality, the India-US relationship can be expected to get a big ballast under the new government. Modi can be expected to reboot the relationship and take it to a much higher strategic plane. This is bound to impact the Sino-Indian ties. 

A robust push by the Barack Obama administration to ‘reset’ the relations with India can also be expected. The Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal’s extended visit to Delhi this week can be considered both as a reconnaissance mission and a preparatory mission auguring a major overture by the Obama administration toward the new Indian government – and Modi in particular. It is inconceivable that the US would allow a void to develop between now and July when Modi is expected to attend the annual summit meeting of the BRICS countries where he will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. A high level visit from the US is probably imminent. 

The US’s strategy toward the Modi government will be driven by its agenda to harness India tightly to its ‘rebalance’ strategy in Asia, which aims at isolating, surrounding and if possible containing China. The US has all along seen India as integral to its rebalance not just to the Asia-Pacific but also to the ASEAN countries, South Asia and the Indian Ocean. 

To be sure, there has been some frustration in Washington that the Manmohan Singh government refrained from explicitly aligning itself with the US’ rebalance and shied away from joining the quadrilateral military exercises and planning with America, Japan and Australia. The American pundits and the US lobbyists in India reprimanded the Manmohan Singh government for lacking «strategic thinking» and for still upholding the cold-war era concepts of «non-alignment» and «strategic autonomy». 

We may expect a sea change in the Indian attitudes in these respects under the Modi government. Much of India’s corporate media and big business who back Modi are also pressing for closer ties with the US and Japan. It meshes well with the agenda of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] and its mentor the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS], which are weaned on the ultra-nationalist notions of India’s unique destiny as a Hindu civilization and a great power. In securing Indian economic and strategic dominance in the region and for establishing a strong presence in the Indian Ocean, they consider it imperative that the country’s military-national security establishment should be beefed up, no matter the resources needed for this purpose. 

Now, these circles have voiced deep concern over the growing Chinese influence in the region and are demanding that India should push back. The BJP has made no bones about its determination to quickly raise military spending so as to push forward with the purchase and deployment of a vast array of new weapons and weapons systems. Besides, the Modi government is reportedly fast-tracking a proposal allowing for 100 percent foreign equity for arms manufacturers setting up industry in India. Clearly, India is positioning itself for collaboration with the US and Japan to develop an arms industry. 

Of course, the Modi government is not breaking fresh ground here conceptually. India’s tilt toward the US dates back to the beginning of the last decade under the then BJP government led by A. B. Vajpayee (who once used the famous expression that India and the US are «natural allies».) The tilt toward the US continued through the decade long rule by the Congress governments led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from 2004 to 2014. In 2013, in fact, India emerged as the biggest buyer of US arms. Again, it was under the Manmohan Singh government that India also began earning the distinction of being the country which held the maximum number of military exercises with the Pentagon, including the US’ close allies. 

Didn’t Delhi know all this while that Washington had a use for India’s massively expanded military ties with the US as a strategic counterweight to China? Of course, it knew perfectly well. Thus, it comes as no surprise that under the Manmohan Singh government, India lately began echoing the US’s stance on the issues of the South China Sea and Delhi also began rapidly building its ties with Japan and Vietnam, two countries with which China has serious territorial disputes. 

Equally, India’s partnership with Japan is a de facto strengthening of its alliance with the US in the prevailing geopolitical context where the Obama administration is tacitly encouraging the rise of militarism in Japan at a juncture where the US-Japan Alliance is increasingly working at a practical level as an anchor sheet of Washington’s rebalance strategy in Asia. 

In seeking to bring India more tightly into the US orbit, the Obama administration hopes to rally the powerful sections of the Indian bourgeoisie, which are backing the Modi government. These include India’s corporate elites and media barons, its security and military establishment and the right-wing ideologues of the ruling party. One principal thrust of this strategy will be to whip up Sinophobia among the Indian elites. A leading Indian-American lobbyist Ashley Tellis last week wrote in an open letter to the newly-appointed External Affairs Minister in the Modi government Sushma Swaraj: «Despite growing economic links, Chinese conventional and nuclear threats to India, and perhaps even territorial problems, will increase, becoming worse over time. Dealing with these challenges… will require persistent engagement and strong deterrence.» Plainly put, Tellis counseled the Indian minister that Delhi should align with the US’ rebalance strategy in Asia both to counter the challenge of China’s rise as well as to gain strategic parity vis-à-vis China. 

Three signposts on a bumpy road

Modi is yet to speak on foreign policy issues. However, notwithstanding his friendly remarks to his Chinese counterpart during last week’s phone conversation, three things Modi did right at the outset as prime minister give a clue to his thinking. One is his choice of the former army chief Gen. V. K. Singh as minister in his cabinet to hold the dual charge of the affairs of the northeastern region bordering China as well as being the junior minister in the external affairs ministry. 

Singh is a well-known ‘hawk’ on national security issues. There have been allegations that while being army chief he allowed a new formation to be raised by the military without due clearance from the government for undertaking covert operations in neighboring countries. Singh has voiced hardline opinions on China being an expansionist power with which India cannot co-habitate except from a position of strength. Some analysts say there is a political signal to Beijing in Singh’s appointment as the minister in charge of the region that includes Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as its territory. 

A second appointment made by Modi was in his choice of a former chief of Intelligence Ajit Doval as his National Security Advisor who has a record of openly espousing the Tibetan cause. In an article as a think tanker that he used to be up until last week, Doval wrote that the Tibetan struggle may be a «long struggle» but the Dalai Lama by his decision to devolve political authority to an elected leadership has transformed it into «a people’s movement». Unsurprisingly, the Tibetan activists living in exile in the Himalayan township of Dharamsala bordering China feel elated over Doval’s appointment, which they interpret as signifying a policy shift in Delhi. 

Interestingly, Doval is likely to be named as India’s special representative to hold ‘strategic dialogue’ with China. State Councillor Yang Jiechi would be his Chinese counterpart. 

But what might prompt the Chinese side to sit up and take note will be that Modi invited for his swearing-in ceremony last Monday in Delhi the Tibetan ‘prime minister’ Lobsang Sangay. At the photo-op at the presidential palace in Delhi after the ceremony, the head of the notional Tibetan government-in-exile lined up with the Indian president, vice-president and Modi himself, along with the heads of states and governments from the SAARC countries. This has been an unprecedented decision and it could not have been accidental, to say the least. The new government indeed conveyed a very big message here to Beijing – with the whole region and the international community watching. 

How does it all add up? Most certainly, the Chinese special envoy who is visiting Delhi this week cannot be under any illusion that the Modi government intends to simply continue with the policies pursued by the previous government. Modi certainly seeks trade and investment with China, but that is not going to be at the cost of his government’s nationalist agenda where the perceived honor and security of the country come first. The crux of the matter is that the right-wing opinion in India still smarts under the defeat suffered in the 1962 war. 

The Modi government has already spoken about the great urgency of stepping up troop deployment on the border with China and of undertaking a massive program to build the infrastructure in the border areas, which has been neglected by successive governments in Delhi, to match China’s capabilities. The agenda, in a nutshell, is that India needs to be well-prepared for all eventualities at the disputed border, including even an armed conflict if push comes to shove, even as the two countries continue to remain engaged in dialogue and cooperation and cooperate to mutual benefit. 

Arguably, once India’s participation in the US’ rebalance in Asia gains momentum and as the US-Japan-India strategic axis becomes obvious as a factor in the power dynamics of the Asia-Pacific, there is a high probability that the Sino-Indian ties may come under stress. Of course, from Beijing’s perspective, the cutting edge will come if the new government indeed chooses to (re)activate India’s ‘Tibet card’ against China. 

Xi’s decision to depute foreign minister Wang as his special envoy to rush to Delhi and establish contacts with the new Indian leadership suggests that Beijing is acutely conscious of the imponderables that are creeping on to the centre stage of the Sino-Indian relations in the period ahead. Of course, China would hope that India retains its strategic autonomy and marks its distance from the US-Japan axis taking shape in the Asia-Pacific. 

Wang’s visit draws comparison with Zhou Enlai’s mission to Delhi fifty-five years ago insofar as its principal aim will be to try and preempt India from taking a course along a road that was not taken so far. Beijing all along took comfort that it is not in India’s DNA to become part of a ‘bloc’ or an alliance. We may expect Wang’s mission to reiterate the raison d’etre of China-India partnership in the contemporary world situation where the two countries would have more in common by way of shared interests as emerging powers than the differences that may set them apart. 

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