China is understandably keeping a close watch on India’s general election in April-May 2019. An article in Global Times titled “Indian election won’t affect ties with China” cites opinion polls which predict a slender majority for the ruling BJP party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It also highlights some of the economic challenges, such as unemployment, which may go against the BJP.
The article states that irrespective of the election results, India’s policy towards China is not likely to change significantly.
Modi’s Ties with US, Japan and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific
Modi has invested immensely in strengthening strategic ties with US, with India’s pro-active participation in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative being an example. In December 2018, Modi met with leaders of US and Japan and all three reiterated their commitment to a “free, open, inclusive and rules based” Indo-Pacific. India is also part of the Quad Grouping, which consists of Australia, India, US and Japan. This dialogue resumed in 2017 after being proposed over a decade ago by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. A number of important agreements which signaled a significant shift towards the US such as the Logistics Exchange of Memorandum Act (LEMOA) were also signed during Modi’s Prime Ministership. LEMOA gives both sides access to each other’s military facilities for logistical support such as replenishment and refueling.
Modi has also strengthened ties with Japan. Within months of taking over in 2014, he visited Japan. During this visit, the India-Japan relationship was upgraded to “Special Strategic and Global Partnership”. Apart from frequent political engagements, both countries have also sought to build the Asia-Africa Growth corridor.
India has been cautious however to not include Australia in the Malabar Naval Exercises. It has also refused Washington’s demand of upgrading Quad talks from Joint Secretary level to Foreign Secretary level. Modi has also reiterated that the Indo-Pacific is not targeted at China.
Modi’s Ties with China
Modi visited China in May 2015, after President Xi Jinping visited India in September 2014. While the year 2017 led to tensions between New Delhi and Beijing due to the Doklam Conflict (a 73-day face-off between armies of both countries, after the Chinese decided to construct a road through Doklam Plateau, which is claimed by Bhutan). India intervened, under a bilateral security agreement with Bhutan, to keep China out.
In the year 2018, Modi and Xi met on four occasions. In April 2018, while visiting China, Modi and Xi had an informal summit at Wuhan in Hubei, where a number of issues were discussed. During the course of the Wuhan Summit, New Delhi and Beijing discussed the need for greater cooperation in Afghanistan and both sides agreed to undertake a joint economic project. Both countries launched a training program for Afghan diplomats in October 2018.
The two met on three other occasions. The first meeting was on the sidelines of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) Summit in Qingdao, China in June 2018, the second meeting was on the sidelines of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa in July 2018, and the third was on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina in December 2018.
Currently, there are two major bones of contention between New Delhi and Beijing. The first, China’s approach towards cross border terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Beijing has blocked a resolution (on four occasions) at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to declare Jaish-e-Mohammed Chief Masood Azhara global terrorist, even after the Pulwama terror attack in February 2019. On February 27, 2019, the US, UK and France moved a proposal under 1267 Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council, but China turned it down.
The second reason for India’s tensions with China is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The main reason for this is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project which passes through the disputed territory of Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. India has put forward this concern on more than one occasion.
In the economic sphere, trade with China has increased under the Modi government. While it was heavily skewed in favor of China, this year there has been a drop. In 2017-2018, the trade deficit was USD 63 billion; in 2018-2019 the trade deficit was USD 53 billion. The Indo-US trade war also paved way for India getting market access for a number of products such as pharmaceuticals, chemicals, sugar, rice, rapeseed meal, fish meal, fish oil and tobacco. It is now seeking to export other commodities including soybean meal. A number of Chinese companies have also invested in Indian start-ups. China’s venture capital investments in India were estimated at USD 5.6 billion in 2018. Top Chinese investors in the Indian market included Alibaba, Xiaomi and Fosun Tencent.
Congress Party’s Approach towards China
It is true that the Congress Party will not fundamentally alter India’s bilateral relationship with China if it is elected. Former PM Manmohan Singh had invested heavily in ties with China. A joint statement issued after the meeting between Singh and former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stated that the world has enough space for both countries to grow. During his last visit to China in October 2013, Singh received a warm welcome. Premier Li Keqiang took Singh on a personal guided tour of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Singh was also invited to address the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China. One of the important agreements signed during Singh’s visit was the Border Defense Cooperation Agreement (BDCA). This was significant because 2013 had witnessed incursions by the Chinese army in Depsang Valley in Ladakh, India.
increasingly isolationist Washington under US President Donald Trump has
compelled Beijing and New Delhi to explore synergies not just in the economic
sphere, but also to work together in Afghanistan.
An increasingly isolationist Washington under US President Donald Trump has compelled Beijing and New Delhi to explore synergies not just in the economic sphere, but also to work together in Afghanistan.
Congress Party’s President Rahul Gandhi has often referred to China’s economic progress, and how it has emerged as a manufacturing hub. He has also repeatedly spoken about Beijing’s success in job creation.
While there is no direct mention of New Delhi-Beijing ties in the Congress Party’s manifesto, it makes references to the revival of the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) process. This is important, because the current BJP government has been trying to promote a SAARC-Pakistan arrangement. It has been focusing on initiatives like Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) Corridor and connectivity projects relating to BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). India refused to attend the SAARC Summit in 2016, due to the Uri terror attacks. On the sidelines of the BRIC Summit in 2016, instead of inviting SAARC neighbors, a BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach summit was held. Leaders of all BIMSTEC states (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar and Nepal) were present.
While one of Modi’s initial slogans was “Neighborhood First”, Nepal has totally moved towards the Chinese orbit in recent times. While many strategic analysts have defended the Modi government’s approach, that revival of the SAARC process will not benefit India. The previous PML-N government in Pakistan reached out to South Asian neighbors for the revival of the SAARC process.
Yet, SAARC does give a proper platform for engagement with all South Asian neighbors, not just Pakistan. A number of important initiatives have been carried out under the SAARC framework. New Delhi also needs to realize that the complete isolation of Pakistan is impossible and could be counterproductive.
With regard to terrorism emanating from Pakistan, the Congress Party’s manifesto categorically states that it will use international pressure on Pakistan regarding terrorism. In the manifesto, the party said it will “persuade other countries to compel Pakistan to verifiably end its support to terrorist groups that it shelters”. If a Congress Party government were to come to power, it would have to engage closely with Beijing on the issue of terrorism emanating from Pakistan.
The manifesto makes no mention of the BRI. It is highly unlikely that the Congress Party would adopt a different approach from the current government. Like the current dispensation, a new government may not be opposed to exploring connectivity initiatives outside the rubric of the BRI.
It would be pertinent to point out, that apart from leaders who have experience in dealing with China, the Congress Party is being advised by a number of diplomats who have an in-depth understanding of China.
State Leaders and their Roles in a Coalition
Apart from the two national parties, it would also be important to keep in mind the nature of the coalition and the regional parties who are part of the next government. A Congress Party led or supported coalition for instance will have regional leaders like Chandrababu Naidu (Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh) and Mamata Banerjee (Chief Minister of West Bengal). Naidu has visited China on two occasions (2015, 2016) and sought investments, while Beijing has been reaching out to the West Bengal Chief Minister. Beijing has been pushing for the Kolkata-Kunming Trade Corridor. China has in fact proposed a Kunming-Kolkata bullet train which would pass through Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Bengal’s strategic location as a gateway to Eastern India and its proximity to South Asian countries (Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh) are highly attractive to potential investors. A number of Chinese investors participated in the Bengal Global Business Summit. China also extended an invitation to Banerjee to visit China, but this was cancelled at the last moment in June 2018.
Chief Ministers have an important role to play in economic diplomacy. During Modi’s visit to China in May 2015, an India-China Forum of State Provincial Leaders was launched. This initiative needs to be given a fillip. While the Modi government has spoken of “Cooperative Federalism” (harmonious center-state ties), non-BJP-ruled states have often complained of New Delhi creating hurdles in their outreach to other countries including China. It is important that politics should not impede sub-national level interactions between India and China.
India’s approach towards China is unlikely to change significantly given the level of economic linkages. An increasingly isolationist Washington under US President Donald Trump has compelled Beijing and New Delhi to explore synergies not just in the economic sphere, but also to work together in Afghanistan. This is not to say that there are no irritants. The major ones being China turning a blind eye to terrorism emanating from Pakistan and Beijing’s increasing influence in South Asia, especially the CPEC project. It would however be fair to say that no major change is likely in India’s ties with China after the general election in April-May 2019.