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Post-election, India-China issues harder to resolve: Expert

SINGAPORE – A resolution to the border disputes between India and China is even more improbable in the coming months, with both sides more unlikely to make any concessions after India’s recent election, a foreign policy analyst said.

“Essentially, if the Chinese sense (that) Modi has weakened, the prospect for political accommodation from the Chinese side would be even less,” said Professor C. Raja Mohan, referring to India’s caretaker Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Some Chinese media outlets were already suggesting that Mr Modi was returning for a third term with a diminished stature and that the Americans were thus going to “dump him”, noted Prof Mohan, a visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) of the National University of Singapore.

“There was some expectation that if Modi came back with a strong mandate, he would be in a position to take a fresh look and negotiate (with the Chinese),” he said.

He noted that there has also been a shift within India in its views towards China, with the main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, which was traditionally softer on China, now taking a more hawkish stance on it.

“Congress party says, look, Modi has surrendered territory, Modi keeps quiet, (he) doesn’t say a word about Chinese occupation of Indian territory. So in a way, already the Indian internal position (on China) has actually become harder, with Congress and BJP agreeing with each other, and that leaves little room for any government, weak or strong, to make major compromises with China,” he said.

BJP is Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

Prof Mohan made these remarks at a roundtable discussion on India’s 2024 election results organised by ISAS on June 7. The results were announced on June 4.

India and China have disputes at multiple points along their de facto border known as the Line of Actual Control, much of which is poorly demarcated.

The India-China relationship has remained fraught since 2020 when clashes between Indian and Chinese soldiers in the border region of Ladakh resulted in the deaths of at least 20 Indian and four Chinese soldiers.

While the BJP-led alliance won a historic third consecutive term at the polls, the prevailing sentiment is that it had underperformed this time round.

The BJP had aimed to win 370 seats but garnered just 240 out of the 543 seats in the Lower House, falling short of the 272 needed to form the next government by itself. It thus needs to form a coalition with its partners in the National Democratic Alliance. This was a threshold it had crossed in both the 2014 and 2019 elections, with 282 and 303 seats respectively.

Mr Modi had made foreign policy and India’s rising stature on the world stage under his leadership a key plank of his electoral strategy, unusual in a country where elections have traditionally been fought on domestic issues like corruption and inflation.

Dr Karthik Nachiappan, a research fellow at ISAS who was also on the panel, said the message that India was on the rise in the global arena under Mr Modi seemed to resonate particularly with younger voters, but might not have mattered as much to older voters.

“India’s rising stature, how it behaves within global government structures and other key foreign policy areas, it does matter to a certain slice of the electorate,” he said.

Prof Mohan said there was a possibility that Mr Modi might make up for his “sagging” position at home by improving India’s relations with other countries, including those in the West.

Mr Modi is in a good position to do so, given that he is now one of the more senior leaders in the international system, having spent a decade in the spotlight, he added.

“The growing Indian diaspora abroad, especially in the West, and the dynamic intersection between India’s domestic politics and the domestic politics of the Western countries… that intersection is a new element,” Prof Mohan said.

“My sense is managing that is going to be a bigger challenge for a weaker government,” he added.

“Some serious engagement with Western governments… to be able to deal with law enforcement issues, to deal with separatism issues, I think this is going to be part of the new agenda,” he said.

On India’s relationship with Asean and South-east Asia, panellists said significant changes were unlikely in Mr Modi’s third term.

“India’s relationships with countries with whom it shares clear strategic interests will continue,” Dr Nachiappan said.

Noting that India has been engaging in a lot of security cooperation with countries like Vietnam and the Philippines, he said: “I suspect the motivations around that cooperation will not change. China will remain a shared concern and that will continue.”

China’s more assertive actions, particularly in the South China Sea, have been on the radars of countries in the region.

Associate Professor Iqbal Singh Sevea, director of ISAS, who was also the chairman for the roundtable, likewise said that the India-Asean and India-South-east Asia relationship was a product of geopolitical and geo-economic realities.

“These realities are going to continue, they are here to stay for a while, and I believe that there will be much more continuity in (India’s relationship with Asean and South-east Asia),” he said.

However, Dr Nachiappan said one long-term issue in the India-Asean relations was the “massive” trade deficit India had vis-a-vis the Asean countries.

“I think that’s the long-term challenge going ahead… how can India become much more of an effective and robust trade partner to Asean,” he said. 

Source: The Straits Times