Indian opposition leader Narendra Modi attacked China for its “expansionary mindset,” signaling he’d take a tougher stance in a territorial dispute with Asia’s biggest economy as polls show his party extending its lead ahead of elections.
Modi said India would never give up territory in a speech two days ago at an election rally in Arunachal Pradesh, a state on the northeastern Indian border that is partly claimed by China. He urged Chinese leaders to instead build economic ties with India as the world’s most populous nations target $100 billion in bilateral trade by next year.
Modi’s remarks signal he may adopt a more strident position than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in relations with China, joining Japan and the Philippines in pushing back against Beijing’s leaders. Even so, Modi will probably find himself more concerned with the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan, according to Dipankar Banerjee, founding director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi.
“He won’t have time to think about China,” said Banerjee, a retired major general in the Indian army who commanded troops on the border with China for more than a decade. “Without any manner of doubt, the Afghanistan withdrawal is a critical question. If Modi takes over, that will be his biggest foreign policy headache.”
India and China, nuclear-armed neighbors that are home to more than a third of the world’s people, briefly fought over territory in 1962. Last year saw the most serious incident in a quarter-century when India alleged Chinese troops had crossed into Indian-held territory, triggering a three-week standoff that ended with a deal negotiated by army commanders.
“The world does not welcome the mindset of expansion in today’s times -- China will also have to leave behind its mindset of expansion,” Modi told a cheering crowd in Pasighat on Feb. 22, referring to the border dispute. “I swear in the name of the soil that I will protect this country.”
China wants to settle the border dispute with India at the earliest opportunity and has never waged a war of expansion, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said at a briefing today in response to a question about Modi’s comments. Both China and India have made clear their resolve to peacefully solve disputes, Hua said.
India and China will hold joint army exercises later this year and have agreed other measures including strengthening maritime security and officer exchanges, according to a statement from India’s defense ministry released today.
In a separate speech on Feb. 22, Modi criticized the ruling Congress government for allowing in an influx of migrants from neighboring Bangladesh. While Hindus fleeing persecution from attacks would be welcome, others from the predominately Muslim country would be sent home, he said.
“We have a responsibility toward Hindus who are harassed and suffer in other countries,” Modi said. “The infiltrators and those who have come with political objectives, they have to go back from where they have come from.”
The Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist party, has gained strength after picking Modi as its prime minister candidate ahead of elections due by May. It would win 217 of 543 seats up for grabs in the lower house of parliament, emerging as the largest party while falling short of a majority, according to an opinion poll released on Feb. 22 by ABP News television channel and Nielsen.
The ruling Congress party may get 73 seats, its worst ever performance, according to the poll, which surveyed 29,525 respondents across the nation of 1.2 billion people from Feb. 4 to Feb. 15. No margin of error was given.
India accuses China of occupying 38,000 square kilometers of territory in Jammu and Kashmir, while the government in Beijing lays claim to 90,000 square kilometers of land in Arunachal Pradesh.
Shivshankar Menon, India’s national security adviser, who is involved in negotiations with China over the territorial dispute, said last week that progress is being made although the countries are not close to a final accord. More than 16 rounds of talks have failed to produce a lasting agreement.
“We are making steady progress and that is the way it has to be,” Menon said on Feb. 21. “Have we solved the boundary question? No. It is like George Mitchell used to say after the Irish peace talks ‘I have 640 days of failure and one day of success.’ But all those days of failure are necessary for the day of success at the end of it.”