On 14 May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will embark on his first official state visit to China, in what could be the defining moment of his "Act East" foreign policy.
Following the general election of May 2014, the BJP formed the government by being the single-party with absolute majority. The highly successful election campaign ran on the single mandate of vikas or development. Development has naturally been the core focus that India needs, given the status of the country's economy, per capita income, infrastructure and demography where a million Indians enter the job market every month.
A year down the line, though, there prevails a sense of restlessness on the development issue in many quarters.
One aspect of this increasing impatience is the apparent conflict between India's "development" objectives with her rising geopolitical ambitions. If anchored well, foreign policy can hugely complement India's development agenda - we need huge investments, and much of it has to come from overseas. However, if misaligned, foreign policy may derail the same mandate of development. The challenge is to balance and prioritise issues correctly, and PM Modi's China visit could well be a turning point.
"Modi has been aware of the importance of India's foreign policy in achieving the development goal."
Modi has been aware of the importance of India's foreign policy in achieving the development goal. During his first year in the office, the Prime Minister has received many regional and global leaders in India, while also making around 14 state visits, a number significantly on the higher side for any Indian PM in his first year in office. He has repeatedly made investment appeals, in line with his "Make in India" campaign, in all his discussions and speeches targeted for the richer nations.
PM Modi's first overseas visit beyond the Indian sub-continent was to Japan. Four of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), except for the British Prime Minister David Cameron, had bilateral talks with PM Modi over the last year through mutual state visits.
Most notable of these high-profile visits was that of US President Obama during India's last Republic Day celebration, as the Chief Guest. An unexpected article with insider sources in The New York Times, suggested that Modi talked about concerns on China at length, surprising President Obama and the visiting US officials.
Interestingly, Modi skipped visiting Beijing for the 26th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit last November, in spite of being the first Indian Prime Minister to receive an invitation from the host, the Chinese President Xi Jinping. No convincing reasons were offered for declining that "tempting" invitation that India had been seeking for a long time. What at best followed was scrambling about the nature of the invite -- as an "observer". Mr. Modi's absence was termed to be the most "notable" in the last APEC annual gathering. Incidentally, Modi attended the G20 Summit in Australia from the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN-Indian Summit.
"President Xi Jinping was the first major global leader to visit India post PM Modi's swearing in. But... what followed was a lack of trust and continuation of strengthening of bilateral relationships."
Prime Minister Modi's also shared his concerns about the South China Sea, on multiple occasions when it was probably was not explicitly necessary. China's sensitivity on both the South China Sea and The East China Sea is globally well-known.
Mr. Modi surely started off well in his foreign policy, with the SAARC invitation, responded to duly by Pakistan's PM Nawaz Sharif. President Xi Jinping was the first major global leader to visit India post PM Modi's swearing in. But in both these two cases, what followed were lack of trust and continuation of strengthening of bilateral relationships.
Analysing these patterns of visits made by PM Modi so far to all the non-Islam nations in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) block, and also to some of the geopolitically key island nations in the Indian Ocean, with that leaked New York Times report and the concerns expressed by PM Modi on South China Sea, etc. may make some suspect (especially those in China) that a key objective of PM Modi's Act East policy is to contain China, with covert or overt support from the U.S., Japan and other affected nations.
The key challenge PM Modi would face in his China visit is to completely debunk that hypothesis, and focus on bilateral economic cooperation and development issues. The task will not be easy, given China's new found stature.
Global media, starting from the Japan Times on PM Modi's Japan visit, to others on the Modi-Obama "chemistry" have been largely unanimous that showmanship has often trumped substance in Modi's foreign policy so far.
"[A] sense of paranoia has always prevailed in India's foreign policy towards Pakistan, and the same paranoia in recent times has spread to China as well."
In stark contradiction to that showmanship, China's foreign policy, since the 1980s, has been largely driven by the famous dictum of Deng Xiaoping: "Hide your strength, bide your time."
Deng's philosophy led to the concept of "Peaceful Rise of China". As the rise continues to be phenomenal with every passing year, China's policymakers to military to citizens' aspirations naturally grew, often posing a threat to that "Peaceful Rise" concept itself, as many would observe. In spite of its economic stature today, China still continues to underplay its global responsibility often by defining itself as a "still a developing nation".
The unprecedented recent successes of China's diplomatic coup with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), combined with the BRICS Development Bank to its New Silk Road infrastructure plans have seen major realignment of powers at a global level. The most important strategic partners of the US, like the UK, have been forced to realign their relations with the rising China, strictly on a bilateral basis.
With this backdrop, PM Modi's impending visit to China will not be an easy one. China has maintained its bargaining power advantages -- President Xi's visit to Pakistan last month concluded with billions of dollars of investments and more than a hundred JF-17s fighter aircrafts. Prior to it, China also kept up its pressure by maintaining its periodical concerns of border disputes with India.
Neutral observers (a minority!) would also admit that a sense of paranoia has always prevailed in India's foreign policy towards Pakistan, and the same paranoia in recent times has spread to China as well.
"Modi needs to be patient, acknowledging that no quick fix solutions to the long-pending border disputes may emerge... However, a status quo in areas of economic cooperation would be damaging for India's development agenda."
Angus Maddison highlighted how China and India had been the biggest economies in the world for almost two millennia. The 21st century will surely be Asia's century with a likely repeat of the economic dominance from China. The question is: will India be part of that Asia in a major way too, as it was until the 19th century? Meaningful clues to this question will come with an analysis of the outcomes of Modi's China visit in defining this key bilateral relationship for the 21st century. The Indian Prime Minister needs to be patient, acknowledging that no quick fix solutions to the long-pending border disputes may emerge - and that maintaining a status quo on it is acceptable. However, a status quo in areas of economic cooperation would be damaging for India's development agenda.
During the Cold-War era, India maintained its non-alignment, rightly or wrongly. We would do well to maintain same non-alignment for now -- until India's time comes.