Deciphering Narendra Modi

May 21 2014, 05:54 IST
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SummaryFor now, Beijing will listen to what he says, watch what he does

The overwhelming victory of the BJP in India’s 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, India’s neighbour and long-time geopolitical rival.

In Beijing, Modi’s victory has been greeted with polite official congratulations but subdued media commentary. One obvious reason is that the announcement of India’s 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 India’s elections. Politically, the world’s 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 Modi’s victory in the Chinese media shows that Chinese analysts have interpreted the BJP’s trouncing of the Congress party no differently from most other foreign observers. The Congress party’s miserable performance in economic management and fighting corruption is seen as a reason for Modi’s electoral triumph. It is also noteworthy that Modi is labelled an economic reformer in the Chinese press. Conspicuously absent are speculations about Modi’s 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 India’s 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 Modi’s 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 PM’s mind. For the moment, Beijing should not lose sleep over a possible rapid deterioration in Sino-Indian relations.

In any case, China’s 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.

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