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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 turn his China policy inheritance upside down by opening up for economic cooperation with Beijing while taking stronger measures to redress the growing power imbalance with the giant to the north.
There are two ways nations cope with power imbalance. One is to mobilise all possible internal resources to reduce the gap with the superior neighbour. The other is to enhance one’s comprehensive national power through alliances with others. When it took charge in 2004, the UPA government seemed well on its way but faltered soon after. India’s economy slowed down by the end of the decade, limiting the possibilities for internal balancing. The UPA government’s plans to upgrade the infrastructure on the northern borders is way behind schedule and its attempt to modernise the military in deep disarray.
On the external front, Singh’s attempt at balancing China’s power by strong strategic cooperation with the US stalled amidst gnawing self-doubt within the Congress leadership and Delhi’s entrenched fears about playing the great game. Modi must now bridge the growing strategic gap with China through both internal and external balancing. This must run parallel to a significant expansion of economic cooperation with Beijing at the bilateral and regional levels. But can Modi play three-dimensional chess with China?
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor
for ‘The Indian Express’