April 24, 2014 12:00 am JST

India's Modi may be two-edged sword for China

SAIBAL DASGUPTA, Contributing writer

BEIJING -- If there is one Indian politician who has exhibited a total lack of inhibition in doing business with China, it is Narendra Modi. The chief minister of the western state of Gujarat is now the front-runner for the post of prime minister, with opinion surveys unanimously predicting his Bharatiya Janata Party will triumph in the current elections.

     China, which wants to keep India out of the U.S.-Japan nexus, has reason to be excited about Modi's steadily growing chances. Chinese media showed signs of unease after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a successful visit to New Delhi last January within a couple of months of Emperor Akihito visiting India.

     Modi scored points with China by finalizing several deals during his three visits in recent years, and he has also been the most vocal advocate of China's economic model.

     "Modi is a business-friendly and pragmatic leader," said Lan Jianxue, an expert with the China Institute of International Studies. "He has visited China and developed personal relations here. We are acquainted with him."

Choosing sides

Some suspect Modi's praise for China is influenced by Washington denying him a visa since 2005. Addressing Indians living in the U.S. over the Internet in 2012, he said, "If Gujarat and China are being compared today, it is because of the success of the manufacturing sector, in which the state has taken a lead."

     A year later, Mumbai-based Chinese Consul General Liu Youfa returned Modi's compliment: "Gujarat is leading in economic growth, the infrastructure is better than most states."

     Last February, the U.S. ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, visited Modi in his office in Gujarat's capital, throwing up speculation that the U.S. was likely to offer amends for the visa issue. Washington rejected his visa application after accusations emerged that the local government under his watch did not do enough to stop violence that resulted in the deaths of several hundred people in the city of Godhra in 2002.

     The Powell visit boosted Modi's image among his fans, who already believe him capable of influencing policies in the world's most powerful country.

     Though the U.S. now says it will give the Indian politician a visa if he becomes prime minister, Washington's initial decision to bar him from traveling to the U.S. may indirectly help China, analysts say.

The other edge

But there is another side to Modi, and he showed last February that he could be a double-edged sword for China.

     "Times have changed. The world does not welcome the mindset of expansion in today's times. China will also have to leave behind its mindset of expansion," the BJP leader said in an election speech in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, on the India-China border. China claims ownership of the entire state, which it calls South Tibet.

     "No power on earth can snatch away Arunachal Pradesh," said Modi, who had donned the region's traditional headdress and jacket for the occassion.

     China is hoping these remarks are mere election rhetoric and not an indication of a new hardening in India's foreign policy. It knows India needs Chinese capabilities for the $1 trillion worth of infrastructure development it has planned, and that may influence how the border issue is handled.

     "It was a campaign remark," Lan said. "We will see if it has a special meaning. But I would not take it as a foreign policy matter."

     The Global Times, an English-language newspaper connected to the Chinese Communist Party, took a similar view. "There is no need to exaggerate the significance of Modi's remarks," it said in an opinion piece. "Given the neighborhood relationship and economic interdependence over the years, India and China have more common demands for cooperation rather than confrontation. Future bilateral relations won't be affected a lot due to changes in leadership."

Staying the course

A Chinese newspaper analyzed the electoral prospects of the Indian National Congress party, which has been in power for 10 years, and the BJP.

     "If Rahul Gandhi gets elected, it is very likely that he will follow the current China policy of the Congress party," it said. "As for Modi, who is famous for 'development,' we can expect more economic interactions between India and China. What's more, as a pragmatic and assertive political leader, it is possible that Modi will bring his style to the Sino-India relationship."

     Both Indian and Chinese officials, however, have repeatedly said they do not expect New Delhi's approach toward China to change, whatever the election results on May 16.

     But there will probably be no softening on the border issue, either. The BJP and its cultural guardian, right-wing Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have traditionally taken a hard line on border disputes with Pakistan and China. It would be impossible for Modi to convince the party cadre to suddenly soften.