Modi’s diplomatic legacy likely to continue regardless of election result

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Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China September 4, 2016. REUTERS

With the Indian elections kicking off on April 11, all eyes are on the results scheduled for May 23. There is little doubt that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will emerge as the largest party in parliament. Modi’s political stature outshines other candidates, and the BJP’s funding muscle and organizational strength rise above the opposition’s, implying that Modi is likely to rule for another term.

After taking office in 2014, Modi immediately launched a paradigm shift in diplomacy . Neighboring countries received the required attention. Internationally, great power diplomacy was carried out actively and foreign policy adopted to stimulate investment.

As a pragmatist, he realized that strengthening regional cooperation and stability in South Asia would help achieve this goal. To this end, at his inauguration ceremony, he invited the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries, including then Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif; the first country he visited was Bhutan; and he solved the long-standing territorial dispute with Bangladesh by exchange of enclaves.

Although Modi was hawkish on relations with Pakistan in the 2014 general election, he tried to improve ties once in office. However, it is regrettable that India-Pakistan relations in the Modi years were disrupted by several terrorist attacks which interrupted peace efforts. Recently, on February 14, 2019, a suicide attack in Pulwama in India-administered Kashmir killed at least 40 soldiers and shifted public attention again from domestic issues like farmer distress and unemployment to relations with Pakistan. It was used by many candidates as a nationalist card.

With China, a strong neighbor, Modi sought closer investment and trade links while adopting a tougher strategic stance. Sino-Indian relations had a good start after Modi took power in 2014. It was highlighted by a hometown diplomacy in September that year – President Xi Jinping paid a state visit to India and Modi shared his 64th birthday with Xi in Ahmedabad.

Nevertheless, the tone laid down by this beautiful opening did not last long. The growth of China’s global influence and the promotion of the Belt and Road Initiative in South Asia, especially the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, deepened India’s concerns over strategic and security issues in addition to anxiety over unresolved border disputes between the two.

In response to Washington’s invitation to integrate India into the Asia-Pacific region, India responded by embracing the “Indo-Pacific” concept advocated by the Trump administration, and tried to counter China’s influence.

Although China is India’s largest trading partner, and leaders of both countries share the desire to stabilize relations and strengthen economic and trade contacts, mutual distrust and dissatisfaction in strategy have gradually accumulated.

In May 2017, Sino-Indian relations started getting complicated. India was absent from the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing. Then right after mid-June, Chinese and Indian troops confronted each other in Doklam, leading bilateral ties to new lows after the two-and-a-half-month standoff.

China and India share many common interests, and confrontation is not an option. Therefore, both China and India are adjusting their attitude toward each other. Relations improved rapidly in 2018. A consensus was also reached in the Indian strategic community on how to deal with a rising China, setting dialogue and cooperation as main focus.

An informal meeting between Modi and Xi in Wuhan in late April, 2018 became a milestone in bilateral relations. This mechanism drives the relationship from the top town. Whoever wins the election, intensified political, cultural and economic interactions between the two giants will not change significantly.

The author is a research fellow with Institute of the Belt and Road Initiative, Tsinghua University. [email protected]

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