China-India Relations Outlook under PM Modi’s Third Term

Release Date : 2024-06-26

Fang Tien-sze, Associate Professor, Center of General Education/ Associate Director of India Center, National Tsing Hua University

India held the polls for members of the Lok Sabha from April to June this year, and the vote was counted on June 4. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the coalition parties won. Thus, Modi becomes the second political leader to serve as Prime Minister for three consecutive terms, following the founding Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, and established his place in history. However, the result of this election can only be regarded as a narrow victory for Modi and his party. Not only did the number of seats for the ruling party drop drastically compared to the previous term, the party was also unable to secure more than half of the seats in the parliament on its own, and therefore needed to form a coalition government. This will naturally have an impact on Modi’s third term. However, since the defense and foreign ministers have been re-appointed, foreign policy is likely to be unchanged for the time being.

Looking back at India’s recent diplomatic actions, they can be described as “being flashy in the front, a fire in the backyard, and a thorn in the flesh”. India has been in the spotlight on the international stage, including strengthening strategic partnerships with the US and other Western countries, hosting the G20 and Shanghai Cooperation Organization summits, and being invited to the G7. India is also actively reaping international geopolitical dividends by not following the West’s sanctions against Russia, but instead buying large quantities of cheap crude oil from the latter.

But India’s South Asian backyard is on fire. The Maldives, with a population of 500,000, has adopted an “India Out” policy, forcing India to withdraw its military personnel. The Maldives turned to China to sign a military cooperation agreement. Despite criticism of the debt trap, Sri Lanka approved the construction of a US$4.5 billion oil refinery facility at the Hambantota Port by Sino Pec in late November last year. Nepal launched a new banknote during India’s general election campaign that featured a map of the country and included areas over which India also claims sovereignty. The reason why these small countries in South Asia dare to be so “disobedient” is that China is behind them. As a matter of fact, the Chinese military delegation just visited Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal in March.

China-Indian relations have been at a low point since the June 2020 bloody conflict in the Galwan Valley. Despite 21 rounds of talks between the two sides at the level of military chiefs, 50,000 to 60,000 troops are still deployed in the disputed area in confrontation, making India feel that it has a “thorn in the flesh.” “The urgency of resolving the border issue varies between China and India. India hopes that the withdrawal of troops can be completed as soon as possible so as to restore peace and tranquility along the border and to address the security threats along the border. China, on the other hand, believes that it is not necessary to let the border issue affect the overall situation, and that it is possible to talk about the border issue and develop relations at the same time. The Indian side, however, insists that there can be no normal bilateral relations until the border standoff is resolved. India’s foreign minister, S. Jaishankar, has publicly stated that “Our relationship with neighboring countries except (Pakistan and) China has been much better than it has been for a long time.” This shows that the China has become India’s biggest strategic threat.

In order to force China to make concessions in the negotiations, India’s strategy is to widen the scope of attack, including auditing Chinese capital, suspending the issuing of visas for Chinese journalists in India, and refusing the resumption of direct flights between the two sides in order to put pressure on China. China, on the other hand, has adopted a “strategic patience” with India. On the one hand, it uses continuous negotiation as a tie-up tactic, but on the other hand, it does not compromise easily. This is because the Chinese side has no confidence in resolving the border issue and believes that the status quo may be the best outcome. However, the Chinese side does not want to escalate the conflict for the US to form an alliance with India to go against them, so it adopts a delaying tactic to deal with the situation.

It is worth mentioning that even if the two sides successfully reach an agreement on the withdrawal of troops from the western disputed areas in the future, it does not necessarily translate into a smoother relationship between the two sides. They still have to deal with issues such as Tibet, Pakistan, Kashmir, the UN Security Council seat, and the trade deficit between China and India. The “Taiwan card” has also been on the table recently, with Prime Minister Modi replying to President Lai’s congratulations on social media X, much to Beijing’s displeasure. Xi refused to send a congratulatory message to Modi as he did in the last election. A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that India has made serious political commitments on the one-China principle and is supposed to recognize, be alarmed about and resist the Taiwan authorities’ political calculations. These actions and remarks have further intensified the reaction of the Indian community. Most academics are not optimistic about the future of China-India relations. Previously optimistic statements such as “China and India are natural allies”, “Chindia” and “Dance of the Dragon and the Elephant” have all gone out of favor, and are now dominated by nationalist sentiments.

Both sides are rising powers, but they view each other’s international development with a zero-sum mentality. China is unwilling to support India’s access to permanent membership in the Security Council, while India resists the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The relationship is constrained by structural threat perceptions and mistrust. To counterbalance the challenges and pressures of China, India is likely to engage in more aggressive grand diplomacy, deepening relations with major powers such as the US and Japan without forging alliances. India also needs to return to its South Asian periphery to counter the Chinese expansion in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. Overall, unless the two countries replicate the Wuhan informal summit of 2018, where leaders from both sides meet directly, China and India relations will remain a difficult diplomatic issue for Modi’s third term to resolve.

Translated to English by Chen Cheng-Yi