Deciphering Narendra Modi

Written by Minxin Pei | Updated: May 21 2014, 11:24am hrs
The overwhelming victory of the BJP in Indias general elections raises both hopes and questions, one of which is how the incoming prime minister, Narendra Modi, who has little foreign policy experience, will handle China, Indias neighbour and long-time geopolitical rival.

In Beijing, Modis victory has been greeted with polite official congratulations but subdued media commentary. One obvious reason is that the announcement of Indias election results unfortunately coincided with the violent anti-Chinese demonstrations in Vietnam that killed two Chinese workers and destroyed factories owned by South Korean and Taiwanese businesses. (The demonstrations took place after China moved an oil rig into a disputed area in the South China Sea.)

Additionally, Beijing has a longstanding policy of non-interference in other countries domestic affairs, thus making it a taboo for officials to comment on events such as Indias elections. Politically, the worlds largest one-party state also sees no reason to publicise a successful transfer of power through peaceful and democratic means in India.

A quick look at the scant coverage of Modis victory in the Chinese media shows that Chinese analysts have interpreted the BJPs trouncing of the Congress party no differently from most other foreign observers. The Congress partys miserable performance in economic management and fighting corruption is seen as a reason for Modis electoral triumph. It is also noteworthy that Modi is labelled an economic reformer in the Chinese press. Conspicuously absent are speculations about Modis China policy. Although the new Indian PM is occasionally referred to as a rightwing hardliner, one can detect no real concern that Modi would alter Indias policy towards Beijing dramatically overnight.

In dealing with a Modi government in New Delhi, Beijing will most likely adopt a short-term policy of listening to what he says and watching what he does (or tingqiyan guanqixin in Chinese). The pragmatists in Beijing understand that Modis top priorities are domestic: reviving growth, implementing reform, and delivering quickly on his promises. Seeking a confrontation with China would be the last thing on the new Indian PMs mind. For the moment, Beijing should not lose sleep over a possible rapid deterioration in Sino-Indian relations.

In any case, Chinas current foreign policy focus is its maritime disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. To the east, Beijing has been embroiled in a high-pitched stand off with Tokyo over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands since 2012. Top-level contact has been practically cut off. Sino-Japanese tensions are so high that many worry the two sides could get into an accidental military conflict over the uninhabited small islands.

To the south, the Chinese now find themselves facing down two small but defiant countries, Vietnam and the Philippines, which contest Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea. In this area, the most dangerous scenario involves a military clash between China and Vietnam in the waters around the Paracels, a group of islands China seized from South Vietnam in 1974. After a state-owned Chinese oil company moved a billion-dollar oil rig into the waters in the Paracels in early May, Hanoi dispatched its coast guard ships to the area, only to be confronted by nearly 80 Chinese ships sent to defend the giant oil rig from possible Vietnamese interference. As a diplomatic solution to this crisis remains elusive, further dangerous escalations cannot be ruled out.

If you are in Beijings shoes, you would not want to antagonise a Modi government needlessly. The smart thing to do would be extending an olive branch and maintaining at least superficial cordiality. China has already made the huge strategic mistake of fighting the equivalent of a two-front war: ratcheting up pressures on its eastern and southern neighbours at the same time. Adding a third front would be madness.

Chinese leaders may justify a relatively conciliatory initial approach to Modis government by recalling how it dealt with the last BJP government. As one may recall, in May 1998, the BJP government led by then-PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee conducted nuclear tests and cited the threat from China as its justification. Sino-Indian relations deteriorated quickly. But in five years, Beijing hosted Vajpayee. Bilateral relations returned to normalcy.

Thus, we can expect near-term tranquillity in Sino-Indian relations. In practical terms, Beijing will likely be far more prudent than usual in handling ties with Delhi. Provocative border incursions, such as the incident that involved thousands of Chinese troops in April last year, are unlikely to occur. On the trade and investment front, China would use its proven playbook, promoting bilateral economic relations as incentives for the Modi government to reciprocate its goodwill.

Behind such a friendly face, however, lies cold strategic calculations. The Chinese government would be watching Modi carefully and trying to decipher his strategic intentions towards China. If there is enough evidence to lead them to conclude that Modis China policy is fundamentally antagonistic, they would respond in kind. But before that happens, they will do their best to avoid any overt display of hostility however concerned they may be with Modis stance on China.

The writer is professor of government and non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US