The article was first published on the Foreign Policy Association network here.
Before Narendra Modi became the prime minister of India, some observers in China believed that he could well be “the Deng Xiaoping of India,” comparing him with the Chinese leader who led the economic reform that has transformed China to a global power from a Third World country.
Modi visited China three times during his days as the chief minister of the state of Gujarat (west coast of India) and was always accorded red carpet treatment by the Chinese. During his last such visit in 2011, he was met by but four Chinese politburo members. Though not a norm, most chief ministers get to meet just one. China clearly saw Modi coming.
More importantly, the Chinese also experienced firsthand the probable tenor of future discourse with Modi’s India when he in his discussion with Chinese administrators, including the mayor of Beijing, not only pointed “Chinese activities in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK)” but also about Pakistan “using China against India.”
While being a provincial leader, Modi was said to have warned China of damage to bilateral ties if China continued to play tango with Pakistan – before going on to tell the hosts that when in India, the Chinese should use Indian maps and not theirs, in a reference to the heat generated in India about Chinese company TBEA having distributed the map of India without some parts of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as the entire Arunachal Pradesh (both Indian states bordering China), at a business function in the Indian capital of New Delhi.
If the Chinese had seen Modi coming, they should’ve seen Modi’s India coming. But, it seems, they didn’t.
They wouldn’t have bargained for the entire South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leadership to be present at Prime Minister Modi’s swearing in ceremony – not Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at least. But before they could come out with the final analysis, Modi was already on a whirlwind charm offensive to Bhutan, Nepal (twice), China’s bête noire Japan, and its bitter rival, the United States.
It was more than exchange of business cards: In January, Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man who had decisively – and brutally – pulled the island nation out of long and bloody civil war, towards robust economic growth of seven percent a year, was quite remarkably put out of office by the country’s electorate.
Immediately after the election results, the region was awash with talks about the change having been engineered by India’s intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). India, of course, denied having anything to do with it but many neutrals pointed out to the uncanny coincidence of the expulsion of a RAW official by Sri Lanka during the run-up of the Jan. 8, 2015, Lankan elections. The official was recalled by India in December 2014 amid accusations that he helped shape the campaign of join opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena – after persuading him to suddenly dump Rajapaksa.
Rajapaksa had long been upsetting India with his overtures to China and allowing the dragon to treat his country as a de facto strategic base – by means of pouring in billions of dollars for massive construction projects. The Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Sri Lanka in September 2014 to lay stone for a USD 1.5 billion port project, something that elicited a quick and unhappy reaction from India.
Despite his allowing China a strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean and despite pressure from the global community, especially the UNHRC, for alleged war crimes, India was cautious in going hard at Rajapaksa – because it could have perhaps him pushed even further closer to China.
But Indian officials believe he pushed things way too far when he allowed in September 2014 a Chinese submarine to dock in Colombo. Sri Lanka is bound by an existing agreement with India to inform the latter if any such actions are taken place. But it did not. And it did not when the submarine was docked again in November.
The Sirisena government has said that India is “the first concern” and has talked of reviewing all projects awarded to Chinese firms. This was a massive round to have won by Modi’s India, but there were many other battles that wherein India has now started pushing China back – at least in South Asia.
While Bhutan has reinforced its stand vis-à-vis India’s concerns, Modi’s two visits to Nepal in double-quick time — his initial visit being the first by an Indian PM after 17 years — has earned him a handle that can help him key in India’s interests into Nepal’s own social, economic and strategic interests. An early reflector of the convergence between the two is the signing of Power Trade Agreement (PTA), which allows exchange of electricity between the two neighbors while opening up other avenues in the hydropower sector.
In Bangladesh, where the China Harbour Engineering Company was expected to walk away with the tender for a $8 billion port power project India has suddenly found itself staring nervously at a rival bid by an Indian company from Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
Most recently, Modi’s India put out a strategic U.S.-India joint statement on “advancing shared security in Asia Pacific region” during the recent Barack Obama visit to New Delhi. China was left seething when Obama, in reference to the South China Sea issue, said that U.S. welcomes a greater role for India in the Asia Pacific, where “the freedom of navigation must be upheld and disputes must be resolved peacefully.” Much to China’s wariness, Obama also showed agreement with India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
All of that maneuvering by and in Modi’s India seems to have got under the skin of the notoriously reticent Chinese. An article in the Communist Party of China (CPC) controlled Global Times remarked, “The seemingly enthusiastic approach of the US and India and the romance between the two leaders do not suggest any substantial improvement in the bilateral ties of the two countries.”
The game is on.