On May 26 and 27, the new Indian government played host to heads of state from seven South Asian countries and the prime minister of Mauritius. The leaders were in Delhi to attend Narendra Modi’s swearing in as India’s 15th prime minister.
High on atmospherics but understandably low on substance, these meetings, including the most high profile one with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, are nevertheless seen as the proof of the new government’s intention to engage with its immediate neighbors first, to ensure peace and stability in the region. It was important for Narendra Modi to start off on a positive note with neighbors since he is seen somewhat of a hardliner on security and foreign policy issues and his rise, predicted much before the election results were out, had created apprehension if not outright insecurity in the neighborhood.
By inviting all heads of states to his inauguration Modi not only disarmed them but also signaled his intention to reclaim India’s leadership position in South Asia, much eroded during the previous government under Manmohan Singh mainly because of domestic political compulsions. New Delhi, for instance, had failed to honor a couple of agreements with Bangladesh, one of its important allies in counter-terrorism efforts, because a regional leader would not play ball. Similarly, India’s Sri Lanka policy was hobbled by political pressure from its allies in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
As a first prime minister in 30 years to win a majority in parliament on his own and therefore not dependent on regional political parties for survival, Modi now has a chance to make bold but calibrated moves to restore India’s credibility in the region. The invite to South Asian countries was a symbolic but important initiative. He did not budge when some of his own political friends in Tamil Nadu protested the invite to Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa. As usual, the India-Pakistan meet grabbed all the headlines, although it was nothing more than an ice breaker.
So even as media on either side of the India and Pakistan border went into an overdrive trying to read too much into the first Modi-Sharif interaction, Beijing, India’s biggest neighbor and inarguably India’s greatest strategic challenge, was quietly reaching out to New Delhi seeking immediate engagement with the new regime.
Within 72 hours of Modi taking over as Prime Minster, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called Narendra Modi and had a 40-minute conversation through interpreters. Li in fact became the first of the big powers to talk to India’s new prime minister, signaling Beijing’s intent to do business with New Delhi. According to India’s external affairs ministry, Li “conveyed the Chinese government’s desire to establish robust partnership with the new government of India.” Modi in turn told the premier that China was “a priority” in India’s foreign policy.
The Chinese Premier’s phone call came at the back of what, The Hindu’s Beijing correspondent Ananth Krishnan described as “unprecedented outreach from Beijing.” China’s foreign minister Wang Yi and its Special Representative for border talks with India, Yang Jiechi, both met the Indian ambassador in Beijing Amod Kantha and conveyed China’s desire to deepen ties with India. Wang Yi also travelled to India this weekend as an emissary of the top Chinese leadership. Modi meanwhile has reiterated India’s earlier invite to President Xi Jingping to visit India in November.
This sudden bonhomie that Beijing is showing India is perhaps being driven by two factors.
The first is China’s own isolation in the disputes that are raging in the East and South China Seas and its standoff with Japan. Left with few friends in Asia, China wants to keep India neutral if not on its side in the increasing Asian jockeying for influence. The Chinese are surely aware of Narendra Modi and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s closeness and Japan’s wish to forge closer ties with New Delhi. Beijing would go out of its way to prevent any India-Japan-U.S. compact in the coming years although, being his own man, Modi has still gone ahead and made Tokyo one of his first overseas stops in the next couple of months. (He has chosen to make Bhutan – India’s closest ally in South Asia – his first overseas trip, and is scheduled to visit Japan in July. The second reason of course is the muscular majority that Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys. No Indian prime minister has enjoyed a strong a majority in Parliament in the past 30 years as Modi has. Beijing must calculate that this will give the new Indian prime minister an authority that his predecessors over the past three decades have lacked.
That said, Beijing’s dual policy of engaging India economically while keeping the more intractable issues on the back burner will continue, foreign policy wonks in India predict. New Delhi will be conscious of outstanding and seemingly intractable issues between the two countries. The long-standing border dispute apart, China’s negative stand in India’s effort to join the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group and the UN Security Council casts a long shadow over the growing bilateral trade between the two countries. The burgeoning trade imbalance that India suffers is a matter of concern. The growing Chinese footprint in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, especially in Gilgit-Baltistan, is another issue that makes India wary of China’s South Asia policy. Still, New Delhi and Beijing have collaborated on issues such as climate change and cooperated in forums like BRICS. They are also part of a multilateral initiative on Afghanistan post-2014.
As Gujarat’s long-serving and successful chief minister between 2002 and 2014, Narandra Modi travelled to China more frequently than any other country and often advocated increased trade and commerce between India and China. He will continue to push the economic agenda. As prime minister, however, he will become aware that good economic relations do not necessarily transcend festering disputes between nations. As he puts in place a new national security team – he has chosen Ajit Doval, a former intelligence and operations man as national security advisor –Prime Minister Narendra Modi will strive to reassert India’s preeminent position in South Asia to begin with, before attempting a Richard Nixon moment with China.