The massive mandate that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi received has implications for the foreign policies of India, specifically in the neighbourhood in general and China in particular. In order to further consolidate India’s gains in diplomacy vis-à-vis China, the previous five years of interactions as a guide, the new government needs to follow a nuanced but firm policy in the next five years.
Firstly, in the backdrop of India’s strong response during the Doklam crisis of 2017, and strengthening of defences, the new government needs to further augment its conventional and nuclear deterrence in the region, buttressed by further investments in civil-military use infrastructure projects both in the border areas but also in the Indian Ocean region. Considerable progress was made in the first term of Modi including border roads construction, advanced landing grounds, deployments of Brahmos and Agni series of missiles and rapid response units. However, the pace needs to be increased with integrated management policies. While protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country and legitimate interests, the new leadership needs to draw “red lines” in the neighbourhood.
Secondly, as China is declining relatively after three decades of economic growth rates and entering the phase of active conflict with the United States in strategic, economic, technological and military spheres, India in the next five years needs to stay clear of where its interests lie and respond to the emerging situation. After three decades of strategic dependence on the US, Beijing is increasingly asserting itself as the “leader” with disastrous consequences. It is likely to re- open “united front” policies with India against the US. A clear pragmatic cost-benefit balance study needs to be made by the Indian leadership in this regard.
Thirdly, China has been assiduously nurturing its dreams of taking over Asian leadership through a series of politico- diplomatic and military measures recently, including the Belt and Road Initiative, Conference on Initiative on Confidence Building Measures in Asia and Asian Civilisations. Beijing is countering major powers by divide and rule or actively balancing by wooing smaller countries in Asia and beyond in the hopes of legitimising its leadership. While Beijing’s efforts explicitly are to counter the US bases and allies in Asia, implicitly with its growing military strength it is cajoling Asian countries to accept its leading position. Indians debated previously whether they would like a submissive “tributary” relationship or for a “Concert of Asia” or taking a “leading” position vis-à-vis China. The new leadership needs to evolve an effective strategy at a minimum of not getting marginalised in the region.
Fourthly, despite renewing itself as the largest practicing democracy with over 900 million eligible voters, many a Chinese analyst recently lampooned India’s electioneering process—a reflection of emerging ideological conflict between the two countries. As the 19th Communist Party Congress in 2017 suggested to an export of an authoritarian Chinese model, the conflict with India in this sphere is likely to reverberate not in developed countries but in the under- developed Asia, Africa and South America. India needs to gear up for this eventuality and refine the Mumbai Consensus.
Fifthly, despite the Wuhan spirit, evolved since the two leaders of India and China met in April 2018, much headway has not been made on the ten items discussed including in strengthening strategic communications, ushering in border stability, reducing trade deficits, working together in economic projects in strife torn Afghanistan, counter-terrorism and others. While China finally agreed to list Masood Azhar in the 1267 committee of the UN after ten years of putting such cases on hold, it is clear that Beijing relented due to the US pressure to introduce a new bill in the UN Security Council that could have exposed China’s role. Also, China is still opposing India’s candidature in the Nuclear Supplies Group and has never endorsed explicitly India’s UNSC membership.
Sixthly, even though India and China have agreed to enhance economic cooperation, and did move in that direction by announcing multi-billion-dollar projects, many of these remained on paper. It appears that Beijing is seeking far-reaching political and strategic concessions from India for what are seen as purely market-led interactions. The new leadership needs to steer clear of these binding commitments even as it focuses on enhancing comprehensive national power of India.
Seventhly, rise of China recently has led to Beijing knocking at the gates of many a region in the world. Of these, after forays in the South China Sea and division of the Southeast Asian nations grouping, China is set to enter in a concerted manner in the Indian Ocean Region, as with the Pacific Ocean region. Frequent submarine visits to the region was combined with medium sea and air lift missions, arms sales and setting up of military bases has become the new normal recently. While Prime Minister Modi initiated “Indian Ocean diplomacy,” a comprehensive policy needs to be evolved in this regard.
The author is a professor in Chinese Studies at JNU. Views expressed are personal. A version of this article was first published in Financial Express of 29 May 2019.