SINO-INDIAN TIES Himalayan handshake for India's Modi
By M K Bhadrakumar
After an interlude of some 54 years, China is making another overture toward India. Relations are once again at a crossroads.
In 1960, then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai took the initiative to visit Delhi even as storm clouds were gathering on the horizon over the two countries' disputed border. He brought a proposal to settle the dispute to mutual benefit, but the Indians gave him short shrift and the rest is history.
The forthcoming visit to Delhi this weekend by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as the special envoy of President Xi Xinping - an extraordinary gesture in diplomatic terms - is taking place in
vastly different circumstances. Yet, there is a common thread. India once again has some crucial choices to make, and the trajectory of the Sino-Indian relationship will depend on that choice.
Beijing has displayed its eagerness to get off to a good start with the right-wing Hindu nationalist government led by Narendra Modi that came to power after the recent election in India. Prime Minister Li Keqiang was the first head of government to phone up Modi after he took over as India's prime minister.
Modi is by no means a stranger to the corridors of power in Beijing. As the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, he visited China on three occasions - in 2006, 2007 and 2011. Even before holding any public office, he visited China once.
Those were highly uncertain times in Modi's political career when he carried the stigma of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Beijing, nonetheless, greeted Modi with great courtesy, and in 2011 top Chinese officials received him at the Great Hall of People, a high honor usually accorded only to visiting heads of states and governments.
A plausible explanation could be that Modi impressed his Chinese hosts as a rare Indian politician - decisive, quick, pragmatic but forceful and result-oriented. Chinese companies operating in Gujarat would have had positive impressions of Modi's readiness to offer a level playing field for them there.
There could be expectations in Beijing that Modi's government will be "business-friendly" and that many of those doors in Delhi's corridors of power on which Chinese businessmen knocked over the years but were denied entry or turned away (often on specious pleas of "national security") would now open.
The government-owned China Daily abandoned its reserve to comment in an editorial that there was "unprecedented optimism" in China over what Modi's government could do for India's "growth potential". Indeed, Chinese investment and trade could help Modi revive India's economic growth.
Chinese pundits have also mused that Mod's nationalist credentials might make it easier for him to make a diplomatic breakthrough in Sino-Indian relations. One Chinese political commentator even prophesied that Modi is "likely to become India's Nixon" - drawing comparison with the hardcore anti-communist US president's dramatic bid for the US-China rapprochement in the early 1970s.
However, beneath this bonhomie, there are strong undercurrents, too - in particular concerning US-India strategic ties.
Modi can be expected to reboot the India-US relationship and take it to a higher strategic plane. A robust push by the Barack Obama administration to reset relations with India is already apparent.
The US's strategy toward the Modi government will be driven partly by the expectation that it will unleash the country's reform program, which in turn will open huge business opportunities for American investments and exports to the Indian market.
However, the US has also pursued an agenda to harness India tightly to its "rebalance" strategy in Asia, which aims at isolating, surrounding and if possible containing China.
In seeking to bring India more tightly into the US orbit, the Obama administration hopes to rally powerful sections of the Indian bourgeoisie which are backing Modi - India's corporate elites and media barons, security and military establishment and the right-wing ideologues of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Much of India's corporate media and big business who back Modi are also pressing for closer ties with the US and Japan. In turn, what they advocate meshes well with the agenda of the BJP and its mentor the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the far-right Hindu organization, which was weaned on the ultra-nationalist notions of India's unique destiny as a Hindu civilization and a great power with global reach.
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.
The Modi government is fast-tracking a proposal that allows 100% equity holding by foreign investors in India's defense industry, a proposal that appears to be tailor-made for American and Japanese companies.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe predicted at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue forum that Modi will take India into a tripartite strategic alliance with Tokyo and Washington to work on regional security. Abe had in mind a regional tie-up against China.
Three ominous decisions
Modi himself is yet to speak his mind on the Asia-Pacific and the rise of China. However, notwithstanding his friendly remarks to his Chinese counterpart during last week's phone conversation, three things Modi did right at the outset appear ominous.
One is his choice of the former army chief General V K Singh as minister in his cabinet to hold dual charge of the affairs of the northeastern region bordering China as well as being a junior minister for external affairs.
Singh is a well-known "hawk" on national security issues. There have been allegations that while being army chief he raised a top-secret formation without the knowledge of the government for undertaking covert operations in neighboring countries.
Singh has openly voiced hardline opinions on China. He sees China as an expansionist power with which India cannot co-habit except from a position of strength. Some analysts see a political signal in Singh's appointment as the minister in charge of the northeastern region that includes Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as its territory.
A second appointment made by Modi was in his choice of former spy chief Ajit Doval as his national security adviser. Doval has the reputation of being a brilliant operations man and according to folklore he reveled in clandestine missions directed at China (and Pakistan).
What makes Doval's appointment rather curious is that he is also known to be a passionate supporter of the Tibetan cause. Doval wrote not too long ago in an article that the Tibetan struggle may be a "long struggle" but the Dalai Lama by his decision to devolve political authority to an elected leadership two years ago has transformed it into "a people's movement".
Unsurprisingly, Tibetan activists living in exile in the Himalayan township of Dharamsala bordering China feel elated over Doval's appointment. Modi is likely to designate him as India's special representative to hold "strategic dialogue" with China.
But what might prompt Beijing to sit up in disbelief is something else that Modi did last week - invite the Tibetan "prime minister" Lobsang Sangay to his swearing-in ceremony in Delhi.
At the photo-op at the presidential palace in Delhi, the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile actually lined up with the Indian president, vice-president and Modi himself, along with the heads of states and governments from countries in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
To be sure, the photo-op made an incredible picture of huge geopolitical import. Modi took an unprecedented decision that trod on Chinese sensitivities, and it is difficult to believe that he blundered into it.
It's all in the DNA
So, how does it all add up? Most certainly, Modi seeks trade and investment with China, but that is not going to be at the cost of his nationalist agenda, where the perceived honor and security of the country come first. That's what the RSS will expect of him, too.
The point is, right-wing Hindu nationalist opinion in India still smarts under the defeat and humiliation suffered in the 1962 war. The RSS leadership harps on it every now and then.
The Modi government has already proclaimed its intention to step up troop deployment on the border with China and proposes to undertake a massive program of infrastructure development in the border areas to match China's capabilities. Intrinsically, these are sensible acts.
But then, the Modi government's road map visualizes that India needs to be prepared for all eventualities at the disputed border with China - including clashes - even as the two countries continue to remain engaged in dialogue and cooperate to mutual benefit.
The big question is how this posturing toward China would pan out once India's participation in the US' rebalance in Asia gains momentum and as the US-Japan-India strategic axis becomes obvious as a significant factor in the power dynamics of the Asia-Pacific.
There is a high probability that the Sino-Indian ties may come under stress at some point. Of course, from Beijing's perspective, the "red line" will be the Modi government's propensity to play the "Tibet card".
Xi's decision to depute foreign minister Wang as his special envoy to rush to Delhi suggests that Beijing is acutely conscious of the uncertainties that threaten to occupy the center stage of the Sino-Indian relations. 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.
Beijing takes comfort that it is not in India's DNA to become part of a "bloc" or an alliance. But India's lurch to right-wing nationalism introduces strategic ambiguities.
Wang's mission draws comparison with Zhou's mission to Delhi 54 years ago insofar as its principal aim will also be to try to dissuade India from making strategic choices at a crucial juncture of world politics that could have adverse fallout on the Sino-Indian relationship.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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