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Issue No.: 576 | June 2015

Modi Goes to China: Development at Home and Peace on the Border

B. Ramesh Babu
As of now India has no option but to continue with its double edged China policy of cooperation for prosperity and containment for peace in Asia. The two dimensions are intertwined and reinforce each other a bit better under Modi’s energetic and brave leadership.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is all set for yet another foreign tour. So far he has visited 16 countries in 11 trips abroad. Before his Government completes one year in office, he will be going to China, Mongolia and South Korea during 14-17 May 2015. The forthcoming visit to China will focus on economic ties between the two Asian giants, which are poised for a qualitative jump, and the long festering border dispute. In the words of President Xi Jinping, the bilateral relations are poised to enter "a new phase.” External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s preparatory meeting with the top Chinese leaders in advance of Modi’s visit aroused high expectations. The large scale Chinese investment promised during President Xi’s visit to India earlier is expected to materialise in the wake of the Modi visit. Nuclear technology and aviation sectors are added to the already impressive list of areas of cooperation between the two countries. Furthermore, the two sides agreed that the border dispute would not be left as an unresolved legacy to the next generation. Such optimism over the border row has been the constant refrain every time the top leaders of the two countries met over the past several decades, it must be added.

At the recent Russia, India, China (RIC) trilateral meeting, Russia and China supported India’s entry into the Asia Pacific Economic Forum (APEC). India endorsed the launch of the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), which is seen as a rival to the US sponsored free trade agreement called the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). On the security front, China succeeded in getting Russia and India to sign on the UN Sponsored collective security arrangement in the Asia-Pacific, which seems to counter America’s "pivot Asia” policy.

India and China are partners in the BRICS Development Bank, which is conceived as a rival to the World Bank. India is a founder member of the Chinese sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). As for President Xi’s pet project called "the belt and the road,” India has been more cautious. India will participate in specific segments of the Maritime Silk Route (MSR) like the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) project linking our northeastern States with Southeast Asia via Bangladesh. This is an important constituent of Modi’s Act East and Link West policy. Beginning June 2015, a shorter alternate route to Manasarovar via Nathu La pass comprising 5 batches of 50 pilgrims each was announced while Sushma Swaraj was in Beijing.

The sum total of these recent developments, projects in the pipeline, and the earlier cooperation over the years between the two countries indicate that India-China equation is poised for a geoeconomic and geopolitical relationship that is unprecedented in scale and sweep, if all goes well with the forthcoming visit. The potential for exponential growth in the future is even more enticing, if the two leaders are able to achieve a real breakthrough on the border issue. That indeed is a real big if.

The Himalayan Obstacle Remains

Another war or a serious military conflict in the Himalayas would negate everything in a jiffy. To avoid such a disaster is the supreme goal of both nations. However, it is necessary to recognize that the anxiety on this score is not shared equally by the two sides. As the occupying nation enjoying strategic advantage in the mountains and superior fire power, China is in a position to call the shots. Keeping the simmering border conflict alive, escalate it into an armed conflict, or opt for full scale economic and political cooperation with India is a choice that is essentially in the hands of the top leadership of China. As far as India is concerned, enhanced cooperation with China is contingent on peace on the border and an amicable settlement of the dispute as early as possible. How to deal with the dragon in the north, a treacherous and proximate adversary? That really is the crucial challenge confronting India today and for the past seven decades. Will Modi’s forthcoming Beijing visit make any material difference to the uneasy and crisis prone stalemate in the Himalayas?

The signals from China are mixed, as always. The dragon continues to blow hot and cold on the border issue. During the recent visit of Sushma Swaraj, the Chinese side made the usual friendly noises about the importance of maintaining peace and tranquility on the border. However, as recently as February 2015, the Chinese lodged a strong protest against Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh! They chose to do so for two days in a row. It seemed to be much more than a formal and routine reiteration of a long standing position for the record.

At the same time, within days of the substantially friendly dialogue at the Foreign Ministers level between the two countries, another key bilateral meeting was held in Munich. India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and China’s Special State Councilor Yang Jiechi held talks on "resolving the border issue.” This meeting precedes Doval’s scheduled visit to Beijing ahead of Prime Minister Modi’s forthcoming visit to China. "The positive interaction between China and India is increasing and the momentum of cooperation is increasing” according to Yang. Doval and Yang "appeared to be working on formulations that could lead to the resolution of the Sino-Indian border row” according to newspaper reports emerging from Munich.

Such optimistic and vague statements on the border dispute are not new, as pointed out earlier. However, the saving grace is that in all these years the talks continued, the confrontation persisted, but the two sides did not engage each other in a serious armed conflict. But the dangerous stalemate, the protracted crisis on the border had become an eternal fixture in the overall India-China equation.

However, it is important to note the significant changes Modi initiated in the Indian policy of dealing with China. On the border issue the historic posture of ‘deference and diffidence’ was ended and a more confident and "muscular” approach is put in place. Military commanders on the ground are given more leeway to deal with the recurrent armed confrontations and border incursions as they deem fit tactically and strategically. "Tit for tat” is the preferred attitude now. More importantly, Modi has given up the inherited policy of equidistance between the US and China. He moved very close to the US politically and strategically and did so openly and enthusiastically. Modi dropped India’s historic strategic and political refrain that it would not seek to contain China. Modi joined hands with Obama against the "not peaceful rise” of China. His policy is that of multi engagement with all the major powers of the world including Russia on one side and also with the US, Japan, Australia, Indonesia and others to counter the aggressive expansionism of China in Asia-Pacific. India-US Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) promises enhanced security and prosperity to both nations.

Chinese Expansionism

China never made a secret of its overarching goal of emerging as the global super power challenging American supremacy in the world. Revival and expansion of the old overland "Silk Road” across Eurasia and joining it with the new Maritime Silk Route (MSR) across the oceans all the way to East Africa reveal China’s long term designs. The "Road and Belt” is the new short name for President Xi’s very ambitious pet project towards this end. There are many new signs of China's aggressive designs in the South China Sea and beyond. In a massive show challenging all nations in the Asia-Pacific region, China is dredging coral reefs on a gigantic scale and using the sand to build up land mass to create what are dubbed as "facts on water.” An island of about 9,850 feet long and 985 feet wide is created about 200 miles west of Mischief Reef, (an ironically apt name) in Spratly Islands. The newly built island is capable of docking warships and supporting military aircraft. This audacious activity is a strategic and legal challenge to all nations in the vast region and the world as a whole.

As a part of its global ambitions, China has just signed a 40 year lease agreement to operate the Gawdr port in Pakistan. China’s forays into Nepal and Sri Lanka are well known. Latest reports talk of China’s negotiations with Ethiopia for setting up a military base in Djibouti, where several other nations have access to similar facilities.

It so happens that the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on a State visit to the US towards the end of April 2015. In his historic address to the joint session of the United States Congress, Abe declared that Japan was willing and able to "take yet more responsibility for peace and stability in the world.” He hailed the US-Japan Alliance as an "alliance of hope” and pressed the American law makers to support the 12 nation Trans-Pacific Trade Treaty (TPP), which specifically excludes China. Significantly, President Obama made it a point to state that the strong US-Japan alliance should not be seen "as a provocation” by any one. He referred to the ongoing maritime and jurisdictional disputes in the South and East China Seas and remarked that "flexing muscles is the wrong way to settle them” is what we say to all nations including China.


As of now India has no option but to continue with its double edged China policy of cooperation for prosperity and containment for peace in Asia. The two dimensions are intertwined and reinforce each other a bit better under Modi’s energetic and brave leadership. The big question before India and the world is whether his policy of close proximity to the US, the multi-vectored engagement with the major powers, along with enlarged and enhanced economic and political cooperation with China will work? The other side of the coin is whether in the process we are confronting China before we are militarily and strategically ready? Let us hope that the more confident and courageous approach of Modi will, and is more likely to yield desired results than the earlier meek
and cautious approaches.

We will find this out soon after Modi returns home from the three nation tour.

DR. B. RAMESH BABU is a specialist in International Relations, American Politics and Foreign Policy. He is a Visiting Professor at the University of Hyderabad, 20132014 and Scholar in Residence, Foundation for Democratic Reforms, Hyderabad. 
Formerly, he was Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Professor of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai. 






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