China is courting Narendra Modi. The Indian leader became prime minister last month after his Hindu nationalist party won a landslide victory, and in his campaign he promised to take a tougher stand toward China. India says China occupies 38,000 square kilometers (about 15,000 square miles) of its territory in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. China says no, India is the guilty party because 90,000 sq. km. of land in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh are actually Chinese.
China made progress toward settling the dispute under Modi’s predecessor, the Congress Party’s Manmohan Singh. Following Congress’s humiliating defeat in the elections, the Chinese need to work harder to prevent relations from deteriorating anew. Hence the glowing words from Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Monday in New Delhi. “China-India cooperation is like a massive buried treasure waiting to be discovered,” he said, telling reporters the two sides are close to a deal on the border. “We are prepared to reach a final settlement,” said Wang.
Any deal would provide a much-needed diplomatic victory for China. With Chinese and Vietnamese ships ramming one another in the South China Sea and Chinese and Japanese planes confronting each other in the skies over the East China Sea, the Chinese government has enough territorial disputes threatening to escalate into full-blown crises. Yesterday, China appealed to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon regarding what the Chinese called “Vietnam’s provocation” against a Chinese company’s offshore oil rig. China wants “to tell the international community the truth and set straight their understanding on the issue,” deputy permanent representative Wang Min said.
Compared to the disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan, China’s squabble with India seems as if it could be relatively easy to resolve. Unlike the South China Sea, where uninhabited islands are up for grabs, both sides have been entrenched on the border for decades. While China and India fought a brief border war in 1962, the nations have nothing close to the historical grievances that exist between China and Japan.
Modi, formerly chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, has limited foreign policy experience but has been playing his hand well in China relations. On his first two trips abroad as Prime Minister, he will visit countries that have territorial disputes with China. His first journey will be to nearby Bhutan. According to the Bhutan News Service, China claims up to 4,500 square kilometers of Bhutanese land, more than 10 percent of the kingdom’s total area. Although the two sides have been talking about their dispute, they still don’t have diplomatic relations. Any detente between giant China and tiny Bhutan would be a setback for India, which has long dominated its neighbor’s economy. By making Bhutan the destination for his first trip abroad, Modi will be aiming to keep the country in India’s orbit.
After Bhutan, Modi will go to Japan in July. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has spent years cultivating ties with Modi. And as the Indian newspaper DNA reported last month, Modi is one of only three people Abe follows on Twitter. (The other two: Abe’s wife and a former governor of Tokyo.)