Pragmatism expected to prevail in India's dealings with China

BEIJING - China is putting a positive spin on Sino-Indian ties under incoming premier Narendra Modi, although there are concerns that he will take a tougher stance than incumbent Manmohan Singh on political issues such as border disputes and the Dalai Lama.

Mr Modi's recent remarks, in the run-up to the Indian polls, against Beijing's "expansionist attitude" and on the need for India to act strongly when necessary are seen as evidence of his tough streak by Chinese state media and think-tanks.

Chinese observers say that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader is likely to continue the Hindu nationalist party's hardline policy against China, akin to that seen under the last BJP prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee from 1998 to 2004.

But Chinese Association for South Asian Studies president Sun Shihai said Mr Modi will also have to be pragmatic to achieve his strategic goals as premier.

"His top goal will be economic and social development, which is believed to have stagnated under Dr Singh's charge. So China is not too worried, as to do so, Mr Modi needs to maintain friendly ties with neighbouring countries, especially China, to advance economic cooperation," Professor Sun told The Straits Times.

Similarly, Sino-Indian analyst Hu Zhiyong of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences said that Mr Modi would take a more "flexible" approach towards improving bilateral trade and investment.

Although China in March became India's largest trading partner, replacing the United Arab Emirates, bilateral trade last year slipped to US$65 billion (S$81.3 billion) from a record US$74 billion in 2011.

India's US$31.4 billion trade deficit with China is also a concern, which will prompt Mr Modi to expand Indian exports to China, said Professor Hu.

Politically, bilateral ties are deemed to be strong, with both countries' premiers - Dr Singh and Mr Li Keqiang - visiting each other last year, a first since 1954.

President Xi Jinping is set to visit India too, around August.

But problems remain over the two nations' border disputes in Arunachal Pradesh and Kashmir, which flared up in April last year and led to a tense stand-off between their troops.

Also, there are concerns over how India will position itself amid efforts by the United States and Japan to woo it as a counterweight against China.

But analysts say India's independent foreign policy - which avoids over-reliance on any power and is likely to continue under Mr Modi - will be in China's favour.

Prof Sun said India is loath to put all its eggs in one basket and is aware that cooperation, not confrontation, with an ascending China is in its long-term interest.

"That makes India's foreign policy stable, which is good for China," said Prof Hu, adding that Beijing is aware Delhi is simply exploiting the dilemmas between China and other states such as the US and those in South-east Asia for its own benefit.

This article was published on May 19 in The Straits Times.

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