Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is facing attacks from the opposition for being too soft in trade and border disputes with China ahead of a visit to the world’s second-biggest economy that comes months before a general election.
Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, told an audience four days ago that Singh’s weakness had encouraged China’s army to encroach on Indian territory. “We remained weak when we needed to be strong,” Modi said, referring to tensions along the 3,500-kilometer (2,175-mile) border shared by the world’s two most populous countries, which account for a third of humanity.
Modi’s criticism signals a tougher line in relations with China that could stoke tensions if he manages to unseat Singh’s government in elections due by May. A military standoff in April marked the most serious incident between the nuclear-armed neighbors in a quarter of a century on the Himalayan border where India and China fought a brief war in 1962.
“A BJP prime minister would be stronger on China in terms of sovereignty and territorial issues,” said Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. “They will build up military assets and increase infrastructure on the border. The Chinese won’t like that, and there could be an initial dip in relations.”
Singh’s three-day visit, the second for bilateral talks since he took power in 2004, will include meetings with counterparts Premier Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping to discuss reducing border tensions, boosting trade and easing visa requirements. The leaders will discuss ways to increase commerce to a target of $100 billion by 2015, according to India’s Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh.
India has grown more reliant on China over the past decade, with two-way trade growing to $66 billion last year to account for about 8.3 percent of the South Asian nation’s total commerce, up from about 4.9 percent a decade ago. India’s trade deficit with China increased to $39 billion last year, climbing at about four times the pace of total commerce between the nations during the last 10 years, government statistics show.
“For Singh, this is the last lap,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, a New Delhi-based analyst at the National Maritime Foundation, a research group that specializes in security affairs. “On the two main issues, security and the economy, he has had limited success negotiating with China.”
Singh called for greater Chinese investment in India while noting that imbalances in trade between the countries are unsustainable, Xinhua reported, citing a written interview he gave to Chinese media based in India. He welcomes Li’s suggestion to set up a Chinese industrial park in India, he said.
Singh hailed stable relations with China over his tenure for facilitating economic growth, according to an Oct. 20 statement before he left New Delhi. He will travel to Beijing today after a stop in Moscow.
“India and China have historical issues and there are areas of concern,” Singh said. “The two governments are addressing them with sincerity and maturity, without letting them affect the overall atmosphere of friendship and cooperation.”
The two countries may reach an agreement to reduce military tensions that will probably require both armies to give notice to the other side when going on patrols and avoid tailing each other, according to a foreign ministry official with knowledge of the talks, who asked not be identified because he is not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
In April, India alleged that Chinese troops had crossed into Indian-held territory, triggering a three-week escalation in tensions that ended with an agreement negotiated by army commanders. China denied any wrongdoing.
China would welcome an agreement to relax visa restrictions and plans to sign cooperation deals with India, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in Beijing on Oct. 18. She did not provide details on the agreements.
Indian officials tend to pay more attention to China than vice versa, according to Li Mingjiang, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“Whenever China does something, such as developing new military technology or security policy, strategic observers in India think they are directed at them,” he said. “Whereas the Chinese would argue they are aimed at the U.S.”
To be sure, whatever is said on the campaign trail normally gets toned down once a leader is elected, said Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a New Delhi-based analyst who co-authored a book on Indian politics.
“The two countries have had a love-hate relationship with each other,” he said. “There is a growing realization that even as China and India compete with each other, they will have to increasingly collaborate with each other. There is no other way forward.”
The BJP has gained strength after picking Modi as its prime ministerial candidate last month. It would win 162 of 543 seats up for grabs, compared with 102 for Singh’s Congress party, according to a poll released last week by C-voter polling agency, India TV and Times Now television.
While Chinese leaders will deal with whoever comes to power, they will probably face a stronger government if Modi wins, according to G. Parthasarathy, a visiting professor at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research who formerly served as a diplomat under both Congress and BJP-led governments.
“No government can be weaker on China than the present one,” he said. “They are starting from a very low base.”