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Narendra Modi on a Three-Nation Tour again to China, Mongolia and South Korea

May 9, 2015

In less than 12 months since assuming the Prime Minister’ office, PM Narendra Modi has already made 16 foreign trips. By the end of 2015, he is scheduled to make at least eight more such trips.

As for now, his foreign travels have made him stand in good stead and his thrust on business diplomacy with the smart ‘Make in India’ tagline looks promising as more foreign countries are showing interest in investing in India.

However, Modi’s five-day-three-nation tour to China, Mongolia and South Korea on May 14 this year will serve as a crucial test of his diplomatic acumen for more than one reason. He will be the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Mongolia to commemorate the 60th year of diplomatic relations between India and Mongolia and the silver jubilee of Mongolia’s democracy.

For once, the clubbing of his Beijing and Seoul trips have strategic innuendoes considering that like India, even South Korea seeks to balance relations with China and the United States of America.

The advances in relations between Beijing and Seoul in the recent times under their present respective leaderships have not undermined the US-South Korea alliance. China’s growing alienation from North Korea continues to shape the political and tactical curve of China-South Korea relations. South Korea’s trade with China already exceeds its combined trade with Japan and the United States.

This parallel augmentation of Seoul-Beijing and Seoul-Washington relationship has invited much interest in the diplomatic circles as it is not an easy task considering China’s historically acknowledged unease with both South Korea and the USA.

Can Modi also accomplish South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s feat?

Just consider that in January, China had reacted sharply when Modi and US President Barack Obama signed a joint declaration on their common interest in ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. China felt constrained as it claims control of the South China Sea and is involved in maritime disputes with several countries in the South and East China Seas over the ownership of the islands as it is said to be having huge reserves of oil and gas. Questions were raised in certain quarters whether the US was trying to use India to contain China to which a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying had then reacted by stating: “I do not think that kind of cold war mentality will work in the 21st century. And, India too is unlikely to be part of any such alliance”.

Earlier in October last year, when a pact was inked between India and Vietnam for oil exploration in the region, China had protested claiming, “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha islands. Any lawful and justifiable oil exploration activity in the South China Sea is fine by us. But if such activity undermines sovereignty and interests of China, we are firmly opposed to this”.

How and when India and China sit together to discuss the contentious issue will be of crucial interest.

Besides that, as South Korea is also competing with China to join Modi’s big ticket projects such as high-speed trains, smart city projects and other infrastructure assignments, it will be a test of Modi’s diplomacy, particularly considering Obama’s Asia trip in the summer of 2014, where he skipped China but visited his allies – Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and South Korea to promote a strategic pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region.

What is significant is that on the eve of the visit, China has appreciated Modi’s remarks published in Time Magazine in which he said, “The Sino-Indian bilateral ties were at a stage where we cooperate with China at the international stage but we also compete with China when it comes to commerce and trade”. Earlier, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, during her visit to Beijing in February this year, had contended: “Our relations with other countries are independent of America”.

Yet another crucial aspect of the Sino-Indian ties is the contentious border dispute between the two nations. Things are far from normal in tackling the issue and it is significant that during the visit to Beijing earlier this year, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping were ready to discuss “out of the box” ideas to resolve the longstanding and contentious border issues.

Yet, in February, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin had called in India’s ambassador to China, Ashok Kanth, to lodge a “stern representation” over Modi’s visit to the 23rd Foundation Day of the north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which China considers a “disputed area”.

The last year during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to India, Chinese soldiers had crossed the border in Ladakh and camped there, prompting Modi raise serious concerns to which Chinese President said, “They do not have a large impact on the bilateral relationship”. Reports suggest that the commanding officer of the Chinese troop was, thereafter, summarily sacked. The border remains tense though peaceful.

It may be mentioned that in the recent months, the Indian government has talked of doubling the number of Indian soldiers near the Chinese border and of building railways and new airports in Arunachal. The settlement of the boundary dispute remains a big challenge since China claims 90,000 sq km of the land in Arunachal Pradesh and occupies about 38,000 sq km in Aksai Chin in Jammu and Kashmir that India claims to be its territory. Another bone of contention is 5,180 sq km of land in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir that Pakistan illegally ceded to China under a China-Pakistan boundary agreement signed in March 1963.

Another big challenge before Modi is also to correct India’s huge trade deficit with both China and South Korea. Already Indian Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has expressed her concern over the large trade deficit with South Korea. So far as China is concerned, it has emerged as India’s biggest trading partner with two-way commerce totalling close to $65.85 billion. However, India’s trade deficit with China climbed to a whopping $37.8 billion last year. India’s exports to China further fell one-fifth to $12 billion in the 2014-15 fiscal year ending in March, while imports grew to $60.4 billion, widening the trade deficit to over $48 billion!

Modi could bridge the deficit only if he succeeds in getting greater access to the Chinese market at a time when the two sides target annual bilateral trade of $100 billion this year.

Hence, it would be important that Modi’s visit results in the following points:

  • 1.  China abolishes non-tariff barriers.
  • 2. China allows greater market access, particularly to Indian pharmaceuticals, Information Technology services and farm products firms.
  • 3. China simplifies rules and procedures for greater transparency relating to imports.

India needs investment and both Modi and Xi are expected to take stock of progress made in the agreements concluded during Xi’s visit in September last year that included Chinese plans to establish two industrial parks in Gujarat and Maharashtra and invest $20 billion in India in the next five years in various industrial and infrastructure development projects. However, reports suggest that there has not been much progress on the development of the industrial parks as of now.

As far as railways is concerned, which was actually identified as an area of cooperation during Xi’s visit, the Chinese side is reportedly still awaiting feasibility studies on different projects including the modernisation of railway stations.

Modi’s visit to China, though, would be high on symbolism. Xi will receive him in his father’s hometown, Xi’an, which is one of the ancient capitals of China and now the provincial capital of the Shaanxi province in the Northwest China. It is rare for Chinese leaders to receive foreign leaders in cities outside Beijing. However, since Modi had received Xi in Ahmedabad when he visited India, Xi was reportedly keen to reciprocate the same warm and innovative welcome to the Indian Prime Minister.

While he will have formal bilateral talks in Beijing on the second day of his visit, Modi’s stopover at Shanghai on the concluding day of the China visit will be marked by the re-creation of Madison Square type event, where Modi addressed 45,000 Indians. However what impact such an event will have on the Chinese polity is to be seen.

As far as South Korea is concerned, Modi’s visit also has a strategic dimension to it as underscored by the recent visits of Indian Defence and Commerce Minister to Seoul. However, it is China’s call, though, that would set the tone for Mongolia and South Korea!

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Disclaimer: The views expressed are of those of the author and do not represent the views of Elections.in.

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