Tuesday, 10 June 2014
Why China likes Modi
– JUNE 10, 2014
Mention Narendra Modi‘s name to Chinese officials in Beijing and an enthusiastic smile is the likely response. China’s government sees something of its own in India’s new Prime Minister, a strong, decisive leader who emphasises development, is keen to learn from China’s economic success and will never be beholden to the United States. “Modi to boost ties with China,” proclaimed the state-run China Daily newspaper in a front-page story on May 27, while an editorial enthused about the prospects of the two countries forging a more constructive relationship based on their “common aspiration for prosperity”.
On his last visit to China in 2011, Modi was treated almost as well as a head of state, accorded the rare privilege of a reception in the Great Hall of the People, and meetings with four members of the ruling Politburo. But Modi granted his hosts an equal show of respect, China Daily eagerly recalled, presenting business cards “with one side in Chinese and in red-the color that symbolises wealth and good fortune in China”.
India under Modi, just like Gujarat under Modi, will seek out and enable Chinese investment, the government here hopes and believes, and in a style it can relate to.
At a time when China’s biggest investments in Myanmar are bogged down by public protests and accusations of human rights abuses, Modi presents a very different kind of partner for the elite in Beijing: A man who bulldozes the opposition and simply gets things done-whether by fair means, as his supporters would say, or by foul, as his critics argue.
Nor is it lost on China that Modi was a frequent visitor here at a time when the United States had denied him a visa. While the West was blocking and antagonising Modi, “China didn’t draw a line based on ideology,” wrote South Asian expert Qian Feng in an op-ed in the nationalist Global Times newspaper. The two attitudes “formed a strong contrast”, he said, arguing that it will be inevitably tougher for the West to woo India and constrain China.
China’s government, though, is too wise to expect Modi to fall into its lap. It knows that, for the same economic reasons underpinning his wooing of China, Modi is likely to seek closer ties with the United States than his predecessor’s government left behind, in the ruins of the Devyani Khobragade affair. Already, voices in Washington are urging the Obama administration to grasp the opportunity for a fresh start with the new Indian Government, and with Modi in particular.
Modi visited Japan in 2007 and 2012, successfully attracted Japanese investment to Gujarat, and is likely to boost defence and security ties with the East Asian nation, China’s biggest rival. He also appears to have formed a close bond with another assertive nationalist, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is deeply disliked and distrusted in Beijing. Modi, Beijing will be aware, is one of only three people Abe follows on Twitter, and the Chinese government will be watching this relationship as closely as any.
Nor are experts here expecting Modi to magically resolve China’s long-running border dispute with India: For one thing, China is unlikely to be in the mood to make any territorial concessions with India while it simultaneously promotes a maximalist position in its maritime claims in the South China and East China seas. Modi’s campaign warning to China, that it must abandon its “expansionist mindset”, did ring a few alarm bells in Beijing, but is largely seen as simply an example of campaign rhetoric from a man ever keen to burnish his nationalist credentials.
While one analyst here hit the headlines by comparing Modi to Richard Nixon, the US Republican president who famously forged closer ties with Mao’s China, the more thoughtful comparison is with Atal Bihari Vajpayee, under whom New Delhi’s relations with Beijing improved and trade expanded. The Bharatiya Janata Party is seen in China as having “less historical baggage” than the Congress, for whom memories of the 1962 border war are perhaps more personal and painfully humiliating.
China’s government has never come to terms with India’s raucous media, and tended to blame the Indian government when it came in for vituperative criticism from India’s more nationalistic television channels and newspapers over its alleged border incursions.
Used to a state that maintains an iron grip over the media, Beijing could not help but suspect that the hand of Ministry of External Affairs was directing the outrage over one incident or another, or at least could have done more to restrain emotions. The reality, of course, may simply have been that television anchors were merely filling the vacuum created by an uncommunicative and unresponsive UPA government, which had failed to set the agenda.
The government of Manmohan Singh is described by experts here as “indecisive” and “overcautious”, and while Modi is seen as “ambitious” and “aggressive”, that is not necessarily a criticism. China will at least be looking forward to dealing with someone who is very much his own man.
From now on, Beijing can reasonably expect, India’s foreign policy will at least take its cue from Narendra Modi, and not from TV news anchor Arnab Goswami.
Simon Denyer is author of Rogue Elephant: Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy. He is currently The Washington Post’s China bureau chief in Beijing.
By Simon Denyer