China or US: Who will charm India first?
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China or US: Who will charm India first?

The United States slapped a visa ban on Narendra Modi and kept it in place for nine years.

So how to overcome this awkward fact once he was elected Prime Minister of India last year?

<i>Illustration: Simon Letch.</i>

Illustration: Simon Letch.

The White House lifted the ban after publicly congratulating him on winning "the largest free and fair election in human history" after more than two-thirds of Indians turned out and cast half a billion votes.

The ban was imposed in 2005 because Modi, as governor of the Indian state of Gujarat, was suspected of tolerating and perhaps even fomenting ugly Hindu mob attacks on Muslims in that state.

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Over 1000 people died in the Gujarat riots of 2002, Muslims and Hindus alike. In some 60 inquiries and trials to follow, there was no evidence that Modi was complicit. Yet suspicions lingered.

The US was not the only one. Britain and almost all the countries of the European Union also banned Modi from visiting. Australia might have too, but Modi never asked to travel so the matter was never tested.

But the US held its ban longest and Modi, angry at the American affront, was not going to overlook it. Some of his advisers told him he didn't need a relationship with the US.

"Modi told me he was never going to ask for a summit with Obama," says commentator Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, foreign editor for the Hindustan Times.

"But he said 'Obama rang me up and invited me for a summit.'" His pride satisfied, Modi accepted.

Governments were obliged to welcome the leader of the world's most populous democracy and one of its biggest 10 economies. But in Modi, Obama found more than a man he had to work with. He found a leader prepared to stand up to China.

To this point, only one other major world power apart from the US had been prepared to stand up to China publicly, Japan under Shinzo Abe.

But now India, a nuclear armed state that shares a 4000 kilometre land border with China, declared its hand.

When Modi met Obama in January, "the first 45 minutes of their conversation were dominated by an animated discussion of China", the New York Times reported. Remarkably, they gave formal public expression to their shared concerns. The two leaders issued a joint statement on a "strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region".

It was remarkable because India, formerly a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, had never done any such thing with the US. And it was remarkable because the statement, while not naming China, was unmistakably aimed at Beijing. And China didn't like it.

Modi and Obama instantly cut China out of their shared "vision" by agreeing that the world's two biggest democracies would "promote the shared values that have made our countries great".

Strikingly, they declared a shared zone of co-operation stretching "from Africa to East Asia". This enormous swath of the globe encompasses China's lifeline. The sea lanes that cross the Indian Ocean carry more than 80 per cent of China's oil imports.

And the statement challenges China's own expanding sphere of influence.

An influential Indian commentator on such matters, K. Subrahmanyam, once argued that it was India's "manifest destiny to control Southern Asia and the Indian Ocean sea-lanes around us".

But China's longstanding view is that "this is something we cannot accept" in the words of General Zhao Nanqi, former head of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences. "We are not prepared to let the Indian Ocean become India's ocean."

The Obama-Modi statement not only challenged China's status in the Indian Ocean, it also laid down the law on the seas closest to China. It said "we affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea."

And they called on parties to avoid "threat or use of force" and to apply "universally recognised principles of international law".

As an adviser to the Modi campaign, Ashok Malik, said, "America is looking at developing India into a net security provider" in the Indo-Pacific area. "I think Modi recognises that if India doesn't step up to that role, China will fill the vacuum."

And Modi knows he has the backing of the Indian public in standing up to China. Eighty-two per cent of Indians consider China to be a threat to India's security in the next ten years, according to a 2013 poll.

Giving force to Modi's intention, India is active across a range of fronts. Two key ones:

One, India's cabinet in February decided to build six nuclear-powered attack submarines, for an estimated $US12 billion.

Two, in response to China's creation of a so-called "string of pearls", military and commercial facilities scattered across various countries across the Indian Ocean, Modi is setting up a "string of flowers" in response.

The contest is joined. Australia, like the US and India, is cultivating commercial ties with China. Yet, in the parallel universe where countries quietly plan for strategic mastery over each other, Australia stands with the US and India.

Tony Abbott, or "my friend Abbott" as Modi calls him, is actively strengthening the relationship with India. Indeed Julie Bishop is in Delhi this week finalising the arrangements to supply uranium to Delhi.

Abbott and Modi have set a goal of negotiating a free trade agreement by the end of this year.

Yet it would be wrong to assume that India is on course to become an ally of the US and its alliance network. India will not go so far. As Pramit Pal Chaudhuri puts it: "Modi has aligned himself with the school of thought that says the only time China takes us seriously is when we are close to the US. It improves our negotiating position."

Peter Hartcher is the international editor. He travelled to India courtesy of the Walkley Media Exchange, funded by the Australia India Council.

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