Op-ed: Narenda Modi and China, a complex equation

Published: February 25, 2014 12:20 IST
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(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi)

This past week, Narendra Modi attacked "Chinese expansionism" in Arunachal Pradesh. This was perhaps the BJP candidate's strongest external-relations statement yet in the 2014 election season. Several months ago, in Hyderabad, he had referred to Chinese incursions in Ladakh (Depsang). The stray statements on China have got some people wondering about the equation between the man who could be India's next prime minister and the nation that could be the next superpower.

How does Modi see China? Lazy analysis is best avoided. Till a few months ago, there was the claim that Modi would reach out to China to snub America, which infamously revoked his visa in 2005 and declared him persona non grata.

Now, with the Americans have restored relations, there is the pat conclusion that Modi is a nationalist politician, with personal memories of the 1962 war - when he volunteered to serve tea and food to soldiers who were part of the wartime mobilisation - and would be instinctually anti-China.

Reality is somewhat more complex. Both Modi and China look upon each other as long-term political challenges but short to medium term economic opportunities. The Chinese have invested in Gujarat and have invested in Modi. In 2011, Modi had a very good visit to China, with his hosts sending adequate symbolic messages in the form of security protocols that were just short of prime ministerial. Modi also met four members of the Communist Party politburo. Most senior political visitors from India meet one or two.

Chinese manufacturers have found a home in Gujarat. For instance, there is a Chinese textile manufacturing plant being built there. Among other things, it will make use of Gujarati cotton and is presented by Modi as evidence of his "farm to fibre to fabric to fashion to foreign (markets)" continuum. The Chinese have been impressed by the speed of decision making and relative de-bureaucratisation of Gujarat. They are hoping Modi will do something similar as prime minister.

The Chinese are emerging as the infrastructure providers of Asia. In terms of sheer cost savings, there is little alternative to Chinese technologies and companies. China is hoping Modi will de-clutter the telecom and power sectors in India, where it has been thwarted by the UPA government's general policy listlessness as well as the sometimes overdone scaremongering by the Indian security establishment. On his part, if Modi is to kick-start the Indian infrastructure and manufacturing story, he will inevitably find a role for Chinese business.

Where would the problems lie? Should Modi win power and settle into a robust economic programme, the Chinese will be in a dilemma: In being a participant in the growing Indian economy, are we helping a future rival? If this dilemma can keep competing Chinese stakeholders arguing and act as a brake against adventurism, nobody in India would be complaining.

However, there will be problems. More than the fastness of the Himalayas, a potential Modi-led government and Beijing would end up competing for influence in the waters to India's east: in the ASEAN region, the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific. Singapore and Japan have old ties with Modi. Former Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong is a senior figure with whom Modi has a long-time association. For Prime Minster Shinzo Abe  of Japan, Gujarat, as a key location in the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor, is virtually a strategic partner.

Indeed, a section of opinion in Washington, DC, already sees Modi as an Abe-type figure - independent-minded and with an Asian time-table that may not always match the cautious, safety-first doctrine of the Obama administration.

A Modi who is in tune with Singapore and an Abe-led Japan, and who may strengthen maritime and strategic ties with say Vietnam or Indonesia, would leave China thinking. It is worth noting that many elements of this approach are shared by Manmohan Singh as an individual, though not perhaps by the Congress party as an institution. Where Modi would differ - should he get the mandate - is that he will be his own man.


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