Newspaper article International New York Times

Strategic and Economic Balancing Act Awaits Modi in China ; Both Countries' Leaders Hope to Expand Business and Cultural Relations

Newspaper article International New York Times

Strategic and Economic Balancing Act Awaits Modi in China ; Both Countries' Leaders Hope to Expand Business and Cultural Relations

Article excerpt

The verbal sniping leading up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to China is a reminder of the thicket of territorial and historical tensions dividing China and India.

The days before Narendra Modi left for his first visit to China as India's prime minister brought pinprick reminders of the geopolitical rifts dividing the two countries, even while they court each other for an economic charge.

A Chinese tabloid ran a commentary scorning Mr. Modi for visiting Arunachal Pradesh, a border area to which China also lays claim, prompting a news media uproar in India. In New Delhi, a top Indian official noted that the government has lodged two formal complaints about China's plan to build a highway, pipeline infrastructure in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, a border area also claimed by India.

The verbal sniping has brought a reminder of the thicket of territorial, and historical tensions dividing Mr. Modi and his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping. Indian and Chinese officials have promoted Mr. Modi's three-day visit as essentially a business trip filled out with displays of good will and cultural affinity.

But China presents a particularly nettlesome test of Mr. Modi's priorities.

He has promised economic reinvigoration at home and firmer assertion of India's security interests. But those goals can be especially difficult to juggle while dealing with the country's biggest and most powerful neighbor, which under Mr. Xi has also taken a tougher line on territorial disputes. Eight months ago, Mr. Modi's first meeting as prime minister with Mr. Xi was overshadowed by a border confrontation.

"There are two Modis on China," Tanvi Madan, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of the institution's India Project, said in a telephone interview. "There is the business- minded leader who wants to do business with China, almost like the C.E.O. in him. And there is Modi, the chief security officer."

In China, Mr. Modi would "downplay the strains about things like the border incidents," Ms. Madan said. "But I think he will also find subtle ways of also making clear that India is not going to be a pushover."

Increased bilateral trade and investment could profit both of Asia's giants. China is grappling with a slowdown in growth and would like greater access to Indian markets to make up for faltering demand at home and in other export markets. India could use Chinese investment to build power plants, railways and other infrastructure, and to breathe life into its manufacturing sector.

"Prime Minister Modi really has put emphasis on the lack of infrastructure internally," Jabin T. Jacob, a fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies in Delhi, said in an interview. He said Mr. Modi's "government has shown a far more open attitude, simply because they are influenced by business lobbies and simple facts on the ground: that it is Chinese capacity that can deliver."

Yet the economic courtship comes while China has been extending its political and military reach in South Asia, and when Mr. Modi's administration is also being wooed by other nations, notably Japan and the United States, as a counterbalance to China. Prominent supporters of Mr. Modi say he can pursue both sets of priorities -- the economic and the strategic -- with equal vigor.

Mr. Modi "needs everyone on his side," said Ashok Malik, a columnist for The Times of India and other Indian newspapers. "He needs a window of relative strategic calm in his backyard to build the Indian economy. He cannot have the Chinese coming down his throat. For that, he needs to keep the Chinese happy. And he needs to keep the Chinese a little worried."

For Mr. Xi, steadier ties with India are a building block in his broader strategy of defusing territorial and geopolitical tensions by dispensing investment and trade opportunities, extending Chinese influence and diluting Washington's sway. …

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