The frontier is where domestic politics meets diplomacy. It was no surprise then that the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, dwelt on foreign policy issues during his swing through the northeastern states earlier this week. Flanked by China, Bangladesh and Myanmar, the Northeast is a crucible where many of India’s foreign and security challenges come together. Speaking at Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh, a state claimed in its entirety by Beijing, Modi declared that China must shed its “expansionist mindset”. He also insisted that Arunachal is an integral part of India and that “no power can snatch it from us”.
As the leader of the BJP, which sees itself as a champion of national security, Modi’s tough rhetoric in the election campaign was understandable. It is also in line with the mainstream national narrative on the territorial dispute with Beijing. It might not be accurate to see Modi’s statement on the territorial question as representing the China policy of a future government headed by him after the elections. Modi had earlier travelled to China to a warm reception in Beijing as the chief minister of Gujarat and a potential prime minister of India. In his engagement with Chinese leaders, Modi had signalled his openness towards more business ties with Beijing, while apparently not mincing words on India’s security concerns.
Modi also inherits the foreign policy legacy of the NDA government (1998-2004), which had a pragmatic orientation towards China. Then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee sought to expand the engagement with China, resolve the boundary dispute, end the nuclear imbalance with Beijing and strengthen India’s military capabilities. In Beijing, a spokesperson of the ministry of foreign affairs offered a bland response to Modi’s comments by affirming China’s commitment to a peaceful resolution of the boundary dispute. Beijing has no apparent reason to get into an argument with Modi on the contentious boundary question.
At some point during the campaign, when he articulates the BJP’s foreign policy agenda, Modi may offer a more substantive insight into his thinking on China. In doing so, Modi will have to come to terms with the dramatic expansion of China’s comprehensive national power over the last decade. As a result of this expansion, China’s weight in the global economy, international and regional institutions, and in the Asian balance of power, has risen exponentially. Above all, China’s influence on India’s immediate neighbourhood has grown by leaps and bounds.
For the next government, tough rhetoric on the boundary question is no substitute for coping with the multiple challenges arising from China’s new status as a first-rate power. With China emerging as the second-largest economy in the world and a leading exporter of capital and technology, comprehensive commercial cooperation with Beijing is an imperative that no government …continued »