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China may find its match in PM Narendra Modi

Author: Indrajeet Rai
Publication: The Times of India
Date: October 8, 2014
URL: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/fictionally-yours/china-may-find-its-match-in-pm-narendra-modi/

The timing of the recent 16-day stand-off between the Chinese and the Indian forces in the Ladakh sector was very odd. It started just a few days before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s maiden visit to India. It outlasted Xi’s India trip. In a quirky situation, both – the Chinese President and the PLA troops — were inside the Indian territory.

Various explanations have been offered for the peculiar timing of this stand-off between PLA troops and the Indian Army. The first and foremost is that Chinese President Xi Jinping wanted to put pressure on the Narendra Modi government before embarking on his India tour. Second, China does not like the growing bonhomie between India and Japan and the incursions were the Chinese way of saying that China can put India under mat at any time of its choosing. Third, these intrusions were meant to signal that growing bilateral trade between the two countries has not made China lenient in any way. When it comes to the settlement of the border row, China would be as tough as ever. Finally, India under PM Narendra Modi has become more aggressive at the LAC and, unlike in the past, the Indian Army refused to budge and held its ground.

True, we have had many Chinese intrusions in the past too. Some say that with growing military might, the PLA has become more adventurous on borders vis-à-vis all Chinese neighbours and frequent Ladakh intrusions are a reflection of this only. Plus, it may be a result of the ongoing “power struggle” between the Chinese foreign ministry and the army to have a decisive say in border and strategic affairs. Then, there is the usual refrain that the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is not clearly demarcated and intrusions are nothing but a matter of differing perceptions.

The fact is that when it comes to China, no one can say anything with certainty. One can only make conjectures about its motivations. There are always ifs and buts involved. However, there had been a pattern in China’s international behaviour in the last few decades. Some important tenets of Chinese external relations can be delineated as follows:

* Trade and commerce get primacy over resolution of border issues.

* Any border row can be resolved only when China has got an upper hand and is ready for it.

* While promoting economic ties, China has not neglected its defence preparedness and has kept enhancing its military capabilities.

* There has been deliberate ambiguity, doublespeak, opaqueness — whatever we call it — about China’s true intentions. Even though it is increasing its defence budget and strategic footprints, its officials always parrot China’s “peaceful rise” theory.

* China tries to ensure that its neighbours should not join forces with each other.

* China sees the US’s “Asia pivot” as a containment policy against it. Hence, it is in the interest of China that big regional players like Japan, India, Australia and South Korea should not enter into any kind of strategic alliance with the US.

Now think about Narendra Modi. Can we claim to know the real Modi? Which Modi should we believe in? The Modi who spoke from the ramparts of the Red Fort and talked about communal harmony or the one who asked Yogi Adityanath to represent BJP during the debate on communalism in Parliament. Then, there is a visible centralisation of authority in the PMO. There are also reports of the PM putting a gag order on his ministers. In short, Modi’s style of functioning is similar to China and its leaders.

His personal style apart, since becoming PM, Modi has re-energised India’s defence and foreign policy. Under Modi, India has taken a number of steps which may have rattled China. Some of these are listed here:

* The Modi government has relaxed environmental laws to expedite the construction of roads and bridges along the LAC. It has also decided to deploy Akash missile in the northeast.

* Relations with Saarc nations have acquired new prominence. It started with Modi’s invitation to all Saarc nations for his swearing-in ceremony. Next, Modi has toured Bhutan and Nepal. Though, relations with Pakistan are back to square one, yet overall, there is an upswing in India’s relations with its South Asian neighbours.

* India is courting Japanese investments and Modi-Abe chemistry seems to have hit a new high. In Japan, when he said that “I am a Gujarati and trade is in my blood”, Modi made it clear that business-first and everything-later is the main guiding principle of his government. Certainly, China must have seen an echo of its policies in Modi’s statement.

* Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has already paid a visit to India. This has revived the talk of quadrilateral alliance among US, Japan, Australia and India.

* India has signed a new agreement with Vietnam for exploration of oil fields in South China Sea.

* Modi’s visit to the US has already figured in China’s state-run media. One of its papers has termed the US’s efforts to court Modi “ludicrous”.

In brief, under Modi, there is a significant change in India’s foreign and defence policy. In fact, China must be seeing a mirror image of its policies: a closed and centralized style of leadership, business above anything else and, at the same time, a clear focus on defence preparedness.

With Narendra Modi at the helm, one thing is clear: It’s not going to be business as usual in India-China relations. We might see more frequent incursions by Chinese troops across the LAC. The good thing is that in Narendra Modi, India has a Prime Minister who seems well-adept at playing Chinese games.
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