Interpreting Modispeak on China

“Mr. Modi is probably the first Prime Minister after Nehru capable of shaping a unique approach to China.” Picture shows President Xi Jinping and Mr. Modi in Ahmedabad in September 2014.   | Photo Credit: PTI

Mr. Narendra Modi will >make his first visit to China as Prime Minister from May 14 to 16. He is unique among Indian political leaders in possessing some significant experience of China before attaining office. In fact, despite — or perhaps because of — the differences in world views and how he has gone about understanding China, he is probably the first Prime Minister after Jawaharlal Nehru capable of shaping a unique approach to China. His forthcoming visit will be one of many such opportunities to do so.

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, Mr. Nehru looked at China in anti-colonial and anti-imperialist solidarity and so, promoted communist China’s membership of international organisations 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. But Mr. Nehru also believed that India and China had the potential to do much together to reshape the world.

Mr. Modi’s four visits to China as Gujarat Chief Minister were 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 United States and China continue to be rivals. Given that the rivalry has shifted closer to home, India is hard pressed to formulate some sort of a response amidst its own political and economic churning.

Lagging behind

Second, there is no doubt that India has fallen considerably behind China in world standing. Perhaps it is the lack of political cachet compared to 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 on world forums. Until Mr. 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 Mr. Nehru who dominated India’s decision-making and thinking on foreign policy issues, India now has chief ministers of states engaging with other countries, and they are increasingly influential on foreign policy. The Chief Minister from Tamil Nadu on Sri Lanka and that from West Bengal on Bangladesh are obvious examples. As Chief Minister, Mr. 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.

If Mr. Modi’s China agenda appears mostly economic in nature, it is probably the result of extrapolation from his record as Gujarat Chief Minister and his identity at home of being focussed on development. However, politics and ideology seem at least as important to Mr. Modi as economics.

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

Two, the invitation to the Sikyong of the Central Tibetan Administration and to the Taiwanese representative in India to Mr. Modi’s swearing-in ceremony 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 and will, no doubt, focus on it a great deal during his visit.

India’s silence on the Silk Roads initiative is due to its different interpretation of what the roads represented in the past.

Three, Mr. 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 up to rival the Dalai Lama’s influence. Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Modi who comes across as more convincing than the Chinese when he makes philosophical and metaphysical allusions such as India and China being ‘two bodies with one spirit’. He, thus, also shows up the contradiction in China’s communists attempting to parlay Confucian ideology or Buddhism as a tool of Chinese soft power.

Four, Mr. 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.

Multidimensional challenge

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, and fits in with Mr. 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.

What then of the boundary dispute? Taken together, the above aspects of Mr. Modi’s foreign policy suggest that while he might be willing to be practical and acknowledge that Tibet is today a 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 there was one, of the Prime Minister travelling 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 as with the potential of 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 on China’s periphery. This, then, could make the inevitable redrawing of India’s map, which a solution will involve, more palatable.

(Jabin T. Jacob is Assistant Director & Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, New Delhi.)

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 9:52:06 AM |

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