As China looms large over India — it presents an economic opportunity as well as a strategic challenge — Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have to turn on its head the policy inheritance from the UPA government. At first sight, this would seem counter-intuitive. A closer look suggests that Modi has no alternative. It is indeed hard for any new government to change the basic parameters of a nation’s foreign policy. And it is no secret that India’s China policy is bound by much inertia.
If India’s foreign policy evolves rather slowly, its China policy moves at a glacial pace. Modi, however, might not have the luxury of incrementalism. For, the China that Modi faces is not the one that India has known all these decades. For long, New Delhi has seen India as equal to China. The dominant image was a symmetric one: two ancient Asian civilisations and large developing nations struggling to modernise against great domestic and international odds.
Modi, however, has to come to terms with one big change in the geopolitical equation between China and India. China’s GDP is now four times larger than that of India. China spends four times as much as India on its defence. It is the world’s second largest economy and could soon overtake the United States to become number one. Beijing is the world’s second biggest military power and towers over its Asian neighbours, including India.
As the Indian economy expands, its relative economic and political weight in the world will certainly continue to improve. There is one catch though. Even if India improves its economic performance and China stumbles in the coming years, the massive gap between the two nations is likely to endure for a long time to come. Meanwhile, the consequences of China’s power are visible everywhere for India. They express themselves, for example, in the form of new military pressures on the disputed border in the Himalayas. China’s rise has also allowed India’s neighbours to play the Beijing card against Delhi or profess “non-alignment” between the two Asian giants.
Can Modi break out of the policy paradox he inherited from Manmohan Singh? The UPA government resisted the imperative for economic cooperation with China by citing security considerations and fudged the security challenges by pretending there was political convergence with Beijing on a range of issues.
Singh had begun to see that China is now a leading source of capital, technology and project management skills and must necessarily be part of India’s development strategy over the long term. But Delhi’s security bureaucracy placed significant limits on Beijing’s participation in India’s economy — from the issual of visas to the deliberate exclusion of Chinese companies from specific sectors and geographic regions. The foreign policy establishment denies India the possibilities for bilateral cooperation with China in trans-regional projects in the subcontinent.
While India worried about China’s rising economic profile in the subcontinent, Delhi could neither offer an alternative to its neighbours nor work with China in promoting joint regional projects. Modi will have to continued…