PM Modi’s comments on China ‘highly significant’, denote readiness for post-poll re-engagement, say experts

In Beijing, Chinese MFA spokesperson “notes” comments, says sound, stable India-China ties are in region’s interest’; PM’s remarks come as China strengthens ties with other nations; contrasts tough talk from Cabinet Ministers

April 11, 2024 07:56 pm | Updated 08:53 pm IST - NEW DELHI/BEIJING

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public meeting for the Lok Sabha elections, at Kanhan (Pipri), in Nagpur on April 10, 2024.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public meeting for the Lok Sabha elections, at Kanhan (Pipri), in Nagpur on April 10, 2024. | Photo Credit: ANI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comments about tensions at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) are “highly significant”, according to Indian foreign affairs experts. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) also reacted to his remarks on Thursday, calling for India to work with China to “put the bilateral relations forward on a sound and stable track”.

In an interview to U.S.-based magazine Newsweek, published on Wednesday, Mr. Modi had broken his silence on India’s ties with China and standoff at the LAC which has been going on since April 2020. He had called for the two sides to “urgently address the prolonged situation on our borders so that the abnormality in our bilateral interactions can be put behind us”.

“I hope and believe that through positive and constructive bilateral engagement at the diplomatic and military levels, we will be able to restore and sustain peace and tranquility in our borders,” the PM had added.

‘Serve common interests’

On Thursday, Chinese MFA spokesperson Mao Ning said at a media briefing that Mr. Modi’s comments had been “noted” and that “sound and stable China-India relations serve the common interests of both sides and are conducive to peace and development of the region and beyond”. Ms. Mao added, however, that the boundary question did not “represent the entirety of China-India relations”.

The PM’s comments were “highly significant”, according to Pankaj Saran, who was the Deputy National Security Advisor between 2018 and 2021, and is now the convenor of a think tank named NatStrat.

‘Signal to the world’

“This is an important signal, to China, the U.S. and to the world at large,” he said, indicating that the PM may have been laying the ground to address issues with China as a priority in his third term, if he is re-elected in the upcoming general election.

He also pointed to the changes in China’s ties with other global players, including renewed talks with the U.S. and Europe, and closer engagement with Russia, as pertinent. Senior U.S. officials have visited Beijing recently, and Chinese President Xi Jinping is due to visit France next month, during his first trip to Europe since 2019.

Tough talk from Ministers

Mr. Modi has thus far avoided directly referring to China or making any comments in public or in Parliament about the state of ties over the past four years. In addition, his words come in the wake of a number of tougher statements by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, who has repeatedly accused China of violating its agreements with India by amassing troops at the LAC. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has slammed China for renaming places in Arunachal Pradesh, suggesting that India would do the same, and blaming Beijing for “deteriorating ties”. Addressing a public rally, Home Minister Amit Shah had also said that because of India’s vigilance, Chinese troops had not been able to take “an inch of Indian territory”. 

“The PM’s remarks reflect the cautious and careful tone adopted by Mr. Modi right since the Galwan incident,” said former Foreign Secretary and National Security Advisory Board chairperson Shyam Saran, who is now president of the India International Centre. The comments might denote “a signal to China that there is a readiness to re-engage and restore relations,” he added.

‘Consequential relationship’

Speaking to The Hindu, India’s former Ambassador to China Ashok Kantha said that it was also important that the Prime Minister stressed India’s stand that normalcy in the relationship would be contingent on restoration of the situation at the border.

“This is a reiteration of the position the government has taken since the summer of 2020, even though the Prime Minister refers to the significance of India-China relations. Indeed, despite a serious downturn in bilateral engagement, India has never questioned the importance of this consequential relationship,” Mr. Kantha said.

Other diplomats said that the PM’s comments denoted a “softening of stance”, including his comments on the Quad, where he likened the Quad to other groupings that India is a part of.

“The U.S., Australia, Japan, India, China: All these countries are members of many groups. We are present in different combinations in different groups. Quad is not aimed against any country. Like many other international groupings, like SCO, BRICS and others, Quad is also a group of like-minded countries working on a shared positive agenda,” Mr. Modi had told Newsweek magazine.

‘Close communication’

In her response, Ms. Ning also said that China and India have maintained “close communication” and have made positive progress on the border situation. “We hope that India will work with China, approach the bilateral relations from a strategic height and long-term perspective, keep building trust and engaging in dialogue and cooperation, and seek to handle differences appropriately to put the relationship on a sound and stable track,” the spokesperson added.

(With inputs from Nikhil M. Babu/Beijing)

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