China on the lookout
Beijing’s concern over India’s new government is futile unless it diligently stresses on improving bilateral relations with New Delhi
The ongoing elections in India are being closely watched around the world, but Beijing is the keenest watcher of them all. The foremost concern for China is of what policy any new government in New Delhi will adopt towards Beijing. China is worried about the image it carries among the Indian people and trying very hard to improve its overall perception before Chinese president Xi Jinping visits India at the end of this year after the political sky is clear.
In the last few years, India-China relations have gone through a tumultuous phase. A series of disputes between the two countries have been instrumental in provoking anti-China sentiments among the Indian masses. China's fervent opposition to India's potential membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG); Beijing's shielding of Pakistan and blocking Indian efforts within the UN to designate the Pakistan-based terrorist, Masood Azhar, head of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), as a global terrorist; the Doklam crisis that went on for more than two months; and India's open opposition to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have created a strong feeling of trust deficit in common Indian minds.
These incidents have cast a long shadow on bilateral relations. Following the Doklam conflict and the BRICS Summit thereafter, both New Delhi and Beijing took some steps to stabilise the relationship. But with the bitterness in ties and the continuing competition between China and India, there was no significant effect in improving the relations. Both countries still need to make herculean efforts to lay a strong foundation for improving meaningful relations that are sustainable for the future.
In the backdrop of the bumpy road on which China and India drove their diplomatic vehicles in the past few years, it is natural that China is deeply concerned about its future interests in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's foreign policy has been largely about managing China's rise. Very few of the many expectations that were raised by Modi's taking over in the economic sphere have been met. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi had an image of a business-oriented leader who had actively sought and received large-scale investments from China.
However, Modi as prime minister could not attract many Chinese investments. The Chinese president made several economic promises during his first state visit to India after Modi took over, but none of them materialised over a period of five years. Setting up of two industrial parks in Gujarat and Maharashtra and USD 20 billion investment in five years have yet to see the light of the day. 'Make in India' also received only lip service from the Chinese. Therefore, the results of the Indian general elections are consequential from the Chinese perspective.
In my opinion, no matter who comes to power, Beijing should expect a continuation of difficult relations with India, unless Chinese leadership decided to address the real issues. New Delhi will always be capable of maintaining a sustained focus on foreign policy, including its dealings with China. During
my last visit to Beijing, I could observe a shadow of pretention among Chinese scholars and researchers that regardless of the election results, relations between the two countries will keep developing in the future. They spared no opportunity to indicate that no matter which party is at the helm of affairs after the general elections in India, China will be able to ensure its share of dividends in the region.
Initially, the discourse during election campaigns was dominated by Pakistan and China both and we would be witnessing its glimpses in coming days too. More than Modi it is because of the structural realities surrounding India. But yes, Modi has been sparing no stone unturned, in positive as well as negative direction, to take political advantage of it since he became the prime minister. He made efforts to give hype of all his positive and negative moves vis-à-vis relationships with Pakistan and China. Whoever comes to power would be forced to deal with the consequences of China's rise. Managing the China conundrum would be any Indian government's first priority.
Modi, in his election campaign, is defining India's relations with China and Pakistan in such a way that even after a change of government it would not be easy for any prime minister to immediately adopt a softer line for improving relations with these two neighbours. Those who dislike Modi are in the open in full force and those who idolise him are rallying strongly. Irrespective of the fact that Modi is liked or disliked and whether he again holds the reins or sits in the opposition, his imprint on the (failed) foreign policy will not disappear easily.
In his zeal to project India on the global stage, to give the nation a new voice on international forums, to make the world listen to India's aspirations and to show strongly that his foreign policy is distinct from the past, Modi has set such benchmarks that any other government will have to initially follow the similar diffidence with much more confident assertion in the name of Indian interests. Therefore, as India assesses its strategic environment, its political leadership, irrespective of party affiliations, it will have to contend with the China factor more and more.
New Delhi's outreach both towards the East and the West will be heavily circumscribed by the growing Chinese footprint. India's engagement with Washington has been shaped by the conviction that India and the United States have overcome "the hesitations of history". To reach this level of diplomatic understanding between China and India, Beijing and New Delhi will have to walk hundreds of extra miles. The recent indications from Chinese leadership have risen some hope in this direction but consistency factor remains to be gauged.
China needs to review its opinion on India's Indo-Pacific vision. It also has to address the concerns of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). It must realise the need to emphasise on the cultural connection to reach out to its neighbours. China has to be positive when India reimagines its strategic geography towards the Bay of Bengal. It is not only China's prerogative to have a central role in the region. India equally has a right to stretch from the shores of Africa to those of America. India's growing footprint and diplomatic engagement in the Middle East and its attempts to deliver connectivity from Southeast Asia to Africa underscore this.
The Communist Party of China's (CPC's) mouthpieces now regularly carry reports of elections being held in India. The criticism both overt and subtle that is found in Chinese analyses of Indian elections reflects the CPC's insecurities. Let's hope, China will walk on the path of mutual understanding between our two countries with more maturity and sincerity in times to come.
(The author is Editor & CEO of News Views India and a national office bearer of the Congress party. The views expressed are strictly personal)