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.
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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 in New Delhi can ignore. At the same time, the next government in Delhi must also address the implications of one important fact: the growing gap in the strategic capabilities of China and India in favour of the former. China’s GDP is now four times larger than that of India, and Beijing’s defence spending is more than thrice that of India.
India’s China policy, then, needs more strategy and less posturing. Central to such a smart approach to China must be the acceleration of India’s economic growth and the pursuit of purposeful national development. Consider, for example, Arunachal Pradesh. Notwithstanding China’s territorial claims, Arunachal has been under India’s control and Beijing has had no power to stop Delhi from developing the state.
Modi may be zeroing in on the right issue when he criticised the inordinately slow economic modernisation of the region. The UPA government’s impressive plans for building road and rail networks in the Northeast remain mostly on paper. An ambitious strategy and a credible plan to develop infrastructure all across the Himalayan frontier are likely to make a better impression on Beijing than the rhetoric on the boundary dispute.
If the BJP is serious about standing up to China, it must also reconsider its policies towards India’s smaller neighbours. Nothing illustrates the BJP’s lack of a strategy than its opposition to the settlement of the land boundary dispute with Dhaka. The more India squabbles with its neighbours, the easier it is for China to expand its influence in the subcontinent. It is a pity that Modi gave no hint of a positive shift in the party’s policy towards Bangladesh during his run through the Northeast.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’