Narendra Modi, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) candidate for prime minister in India’s upcoming general elections, has normally been quite reserved on matters of foreign policy. That changed last week when Modi publicly called for China to abandon its “expansionist attitude,” referring to India’s ongoing territorial disputes with China in Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir.
At a rally in Pasighat, in the Indian northeast, Modi came down hard on China. “No power on earth can take away even an inch from India,” he said, adding that “China should give up its expansionist attitude and adopt a development mindset.” The speech appeared to be a broad attempt to bolster his credentials as a tough leader and a nationalist. “I swear by this land that I will not let this nation be destroyed, I will not let this nation be divided, I will not let this nation bow down,” he added.
Until now, the most Modi had offered in the way of a concrete vision for Indian foreign policy was his idea of allowing Indian states greater autonomy in pursuing relations with foreign states for economic ends. Modi argued that allowing this sort of foreign policy federalism would lead to more efficient economic outcomes than allowing New Delhi to navigate economic deals on behalf of Indian states. That vision stemmed from his own experience as the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat. Under Modi’s leadership, Gujarat has seen economic growth above the Indian average for the most part of the last ten years.
The remarks don’t entirely contrast with Modi’s comments on China made in October 2013, but they are significantly more pointed. Back then, he remarked: “We cannot allow China to dominate India in foreign policy matters. We have been insensitive when we should have been sensitive. We remained weak when we needed to be strong.” The shift can be attributed largely to the northeastern venue of the rally, which naturally brings up the issue of India’s territorial dispute with China. At the Pasighat rally, Modi noted that “Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of India and will always remain so. No power can snatch it from us. People of Arunachal Pradesh didn’t come under pressure or fear of China.”
The Chinese foreign ministry responded to Modi’s remarks a few days after the fact. Foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters that China had “never waged a war of aggression to occupy an inch of land of other countries.” The spokesperson noted that the lack of any serious armed clashes along the India-China border in years was a sign that the status-quo was successful and that the two countries “have the capability to maintain peace there.” “We always reiterate that we take real actions to commit through the peaceful development path,” she added.
Currently, China claims Arunachal Pradesh, an India-administered state in the northeast of India, almost in its entirety and refers to it as South Tibet. China also occupies and administers the northeastern region of Kashmir known as Aksai Chin. India and China fought a war in 1962 and have since faced off along their disputed border on occasion. The latest significant stand-off occurred in April 2013 when a Chinese PLA platoon crossed the Line of Actual Control – the effective border between India-administered and China-administered Kashmir (Aksai Chin).
Analysts and observers remain skeptical that Modi coming to power would significantly transform Indian foreign policy. According to the Financial Times, Sanjaya Baru, director for geoeconomics and strategy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, imagines that “Indian foreign policy under a Modi government would probably not be fundamentally different in reality from that of Manmohan Singh, the current Congress prime minister.” Dipankar Banerjee, a retired major general in the Indian army, notes that should Modi come to power, his primary foreign policy preoccupation will have to be Afghanistan following the U.S. drawdown there. “He won’t have time to think about China,” notes Banerjee.