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Can Modi Checkmate China?

India and China’s race towards South Asia’s hegemony, with Modi’s sharp, well-thought out and precise moves when it comes to employing his ‘chess pieces’, tactically combating every hurdle which could stunt India’s growth, especially when it comes to overpowering China in the region. Modi is a force to be reckoned.

Modi

Ayanangsha Maitra |

Unlike the fiercest fast bowler Prime Minister of Pakistan, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi doesn’t know how to take wickets. May not be a grandmaster, but consummate politician Modi is no less than a sharp chess prodigy. Modi knows where to move which chess piece - where to field which player. In a constituency and in the cabinet. Appointing his former foreign secretary Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar as the External Affairs Minister in his second term, he surprised everyone.

Jaishankar is neither a BJP member nor a politician. But the man behind Indo-American 123 Civil Nuclear deal, S Jaishankar is instrumental in making diplomacy transactional and transformational. He is fluent in the tongues of Washington and Beijing. On the other hand, Vijay Gokhale showing great bravura in dealing with China has joined as the Foreign Secretary of India. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, a hawk, has been entrusted with more power. These three are the strongest wickets in team-Modi to confront China.

Modi knows where to move which chess piece - where to field which player.

When China is disrupting the world order, New Delhi has taken a defiant stand against China’s hegemonic strategy. India is a naysayer of China’s ultra-futuristic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). With a muscular approach, money and military, China is vying with India for the South Asian region. She has pumped enormous amounts of money into projects like the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Bangladesh-India-China-Myanmar Corridor (BICM), and Trans Himalayan Corridor.

Some critics tend to describe BRI as a debt trap. After Pakistan, Bangladesh is the second-largest recipient of the Chinese financial support in South Asia. Disdaining their ‘Delhi first’ policy, the left-leaning government in Kathmandu has tilted towards Beijing. China’s naval presence in Sri Lanka and the Maldives has unnerved New Delhi.

Read more: India and France set to intimidate China in Indian Ocean

Vying for Bhutan

In his previous term, globe tottering PM Modi undertook 92 foreign trips. After assuming the office in 2014, Prime Minister Modi first visited the hilly Himalayan state Bhutan. Re-assuming the office in 2019, when Modi headed towards the Indian Ocean archipelago to make the Neighbourhood First policy more pragmatic, his External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar jetted towards Bhutan.

Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale paid a two-day visit to Bhutan on July 4th. Neither China nor India neglects the strategic importance of the beauty queen Bhutan. In April 2018, after a diplomatic spat over Doklaham in Bhutan, Modi caught up with President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, China. The dust had settled after ten long weeks.

National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, a hawk, has been entrusted with more power. These three are the strongest wickets in team-Modi to confront China.

Now Bhutan is on the horns of a dilemma. It’s becoming harder for Thimphu to choose between Beijing and New Delhi. In December 2018, when Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering arrived in Delhi, India extended financial support of ₹4,500 crore in Bhutan’s 12th five-year plan. India in her Union Budget 2019-20 allocated ₹2,802 crore for Bhutan.

When China is jostling to stamp her mark in all the South Asian states - the foreign policy grammar of Modi has given priority to India’s neighbourhood. Without flexing muscle in the region, India can’t achieve her global goals. She is trying best to maintain her image in the neighbourhood.

Read more: U.S-India conduct naval exercises in the South China Sea sparking controversy and criticism from Beijing

Reimagining and Re-defining the Neighbourhood

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif attended Modi’s first swearing-in ceremony in 2014. On his second swearing-in ceremony, Modi didn’t invite any Pakistani leader after the attacks on Indian soil by Pakistan based terror outfits. The second oath-taking ceremony, held on May 30, was graced by Kyrgyzstan President Sooronbay Jeenbekov, Indian-origin Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth and all the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) leaders.

In addition to India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan are in the BIMSTEC group. Due to a dysfunctional SAARC, the caliber of this club is growing. So is the charisma. Soon after the resounding parliamentary victory in 2019, Modi emplaned for a two-day trip to the Maldives and Sri Lanka on June 8. During this trip, India and Maldives inked six deals - ranging from hydrography to health.

Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale paid a two-day visit to Bhutan on July 4th. Neither China nor India neglects the strategic importance of the beauty queen Bhutan.

Modi and Ibrahim Solih, new President of Maldives, inaugurated a coastal surveillance radar system and a composite training centre for the Maldives Defence Forces. Addressing at Majlis, the Maldivian Parliament - the Indian supremo emphasized on emerging threats like climate change and terrorism. The Maldives conferred the highest civilian award on Modi and promised to work closely with Delhi, abiding by her India First policy.

Last year, when Ibrahim Solih arrived in India on a state visit, India extended a financial aid of $1.4 billion to the Maldives as budget support, currency support and a line of credit. The two incumbent leagues in Delhi and Male are neck and neck. In a response to President Solih’s request, India has committed to construct a cricket stadium of international standards at Hulhumale in the Maldives.

Indian expert cricketers will coach the new breed of Maldivian male and female cricketers. India will also financially support the Maldives in the conservation project of Friday Mosque, made up of coral.

Read more: China urges India, Pakistan against ‘expansion’ of tensions

Connecting Central Asia and Engaging with the G20 Leaders

The first India-Central Asia Dialogue was held in Uzbek capital Samarkand on January 12 and 13, 2019. In the Modi era, the Indo-Central Asian bonhomie is blooming. Due to connectivity, economic and strategic reasons, Modi has been keen to bolster India’s relationship with the Central Asian republics. This was the main reason behind inviting Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov at Modi’s second swearing-in ceremony.

Modi didn’t invite any Pakistani leader after the attacks on Indian soil by Pakistan based terror outfits.

Modi reciprocated Jeenbekov’s visit, attending Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek on June 13. While travelling to Central Asia, Modi’s special jet refrained from overflying Pakistan. The flight had to take a circuitous route - crossing the airspace of Oman and Iran. While in Bishkek, Modi and Imran Khan faced each other and exchanged pleasantries after months of tension that led a scary aerial dogfight.

But no tête-à-tête. No closed-doors. Prior to this meeting, then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj caught up with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi on May 22 in this town. Ultimately Bishkek could not warm up the chilling relations between New Delhi and Islamabad. At the SCO summit, Modi and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had to shelve a one-to-one meeting due to scheduling issues.

Read more: India and China nervous spectators in Sri Lanka crisis

The meeting was very significant, especially after New Delhi stopped buying oil from Iran. However, Modi didn’t return with an empty hand from Central Asia. He was closest with President Xi Jinping and President Putin to strengthen India’s bilateral ties with China and Russia. Along with Kyrgyz president, he inaugurated India-Kyrgyz Business Forum to boost bilateral trade. Hosting G20 summit on June 28-29, Japanese town Osaka has gained immense prestige.

The summit presented an excellent opportunity to India for achieving her diplomatic goals. At the G20 summit, Modi concluded nine bilateral meetings with the leaders of Japan, USA, Germany, Australia, Indonesia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Turkey and eight pull-aside meetings with Thailand, Vietnam, the World Bank, the UNSG, France, Italy, Singapore and Chile. Besides, India participated in two plurilateral.

In the Modi era, the Indo-Central Asian bonhomie is blooming. Due to connectivity, economic and strategic reasons.

The summit became a venue for the meetings of JAI (Japan-America-India) and RIC (Russia-India-China). An Indian delegation led by Modi attended one multilateral meeting of BRICS as well. Modi emphasized on trade, counter-terrorism, sports and maritime security. At the summit, Australian Prime Minister Scott John Morrison tweeted a selfie with Modi with a caption, “Kitna acha hai Modi.” It hovered over the cyber-world and went viral. Modi, President Donald Trump and Japanese premier Shinzo Abe extensively discussed about the Indo-Pacific.

China and India both are wrestling to increase influence in South and South-East Asian regions. Framing policies like Neighbourhood First and Act East, New Delhi is allocating more funds for her neighbourhood. India is now ahead of China - when it comes to Foreign Direct Investment in South Asia. A looming trade war, on the other hand, has diverted China’s investment to the major Southeast Asian economies.

Read more: China woos Bhutan, to India’s displeasure

In spite of their clash of ambition, the Sino-Indian camaraderie remains strong. China is one of the largest trading partners of India. The bilateral trade between India and China is expected to cross the $100 billion mark by this year. This is why Modi is eager to achieve a new equilibrium with China - apart from other strategic and political calculus. China too wants their relationship with India to be on an upward trajectory due to the trade war with the USA.

In the last five years, Modi and President Xi Jinping have met more than ten times in different places and situations. New Delhi’s deft diplomacy worked perfectly in the long-pending case of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar. The UN-designated Masood Azhar as a global terrorist after Beijing lifted restrictions on Azhar.

In Politics,as in the game of Chess, nerves fight. Pawns or the soldiers are the first line of defence. In both, Politics and Chess, as grandmaster Bobby Fischer asserts, one needs to crush his opponent’s mind to win. India has proved herself to be a competent opponent of China – at least in the region. India’s charismatic and enigmatic leader Modi may not checkmate China but he can’t be outmanoeuvred easily in the endgame.

Ayanangsha Maitra is a freelance journalist from India. He tweets at @Ayanangsha. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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