PM Modi’s 9 day tour of China, Mongolia and South Korea in May, which followed a visit last year to Japan, confirmed that East Asia is a particular focus of the foreign policy of the current NDA government. One reason for this is that this region is viewed as a source of foreign capital investment, advanced technologies and energy resources which the Indian bourgeoisie sees as necessary for its plans to become a major global power. On the other hand, East Asia is becoming increasingly important for the Indian ruling class from a strategic point of view. It is clear that the Indian state sees China as the major challenge to its plan to expand its influence and power in the region and globally. While US imperialism would like to rope India into its plans to contain China, the Indian bourgeoisie at this stage wants to manage its own relationship with China, keeping in mind its rivalry with China, its own security concerns and its desire to benefit from China’s economic resources.
The British colonial legacy on the India-China frontier and the impact of the Cold War, which together led to the 1962 border war between India and China, has cast a long shadow over the relationship between these two big neighbouring countries of Asia, and prevented anything like a friendly relationship from developing over the last 50 years. At the same time, since the beginning of this century, trade between the two countries has expanded to the point where China is now India’s largest trading partner. These contradictory aspects together influence the way the Indian bourgeoisie views China today. From the beginning it was clear that Modi’s visit would not see any breakthrough on resolving the border dispute, even though the joint statement issued by both sides in Beijing agreed that “an early settlement of the boundary question” should be pursued “as a strategic objective”. As long as the problem of Tibet for China and the problem of Kashmir for India remain unresolved, it is unlikely that any lasting solution to the border will be found. At the same time, for the last few decades, no major conflict has erupted on the India-China border, and both sides agreed during Modi’s visit to increase “confidence building measures” to keep it that way.
A major feature of Modi’s visit to China was the emphasis on a “closer developmental partnership” between the two countries. The Indian bourgeoisie is eyeing China’s abundant capital reserves for its own growth. However, both sides know that there are many constraints that are preventing Chinese investments from flowing into India. On the Indian side, these are mainly security considerations which make the Indian state suspicious of Chinese penetration in any form. Despite the talk of easing business visas for Chinese coming to India, there is no clear indication that these security restrictions on Chinese investments in India will be lifted. A lot of publicity was given to the $22 billion pledged by Chinese companies during Modi’s visit to Shanghai, as strengthening Modi’s “Make in India” campaign. However, the overwhelming part of this money is from Chinese banks to finance the operations of just two big capitalist monopolies in India -- the Adani group and Airtel – and will do hardly anything to increase manufacturing capacity in India. A new development was the emphasis on Indian states directly dealing with Chinese provinces to contract business deals. This was reflected in the participation of the chief ministers of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka in this visit.
In recent months, China has announced a very ambitious and massive plan to invest in transport and energy infrastructure, both land-based and maritime, right across Asia and Europe, which it has named after the ancient “Silk Road”. This has deeply worried the Indian state, especially since practically all of India’s neighbouring countries have enthusiastically joined this project. India is one of the few countries which China has invited to join, which has not responded positively to it. This was confirmed during Modi’s visit to China, when not a word was mentioned about this project (also called OBOR: “One Belt, One Road”). At the same time, India reaffirmed its participation in other initiatives of China, including the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) regional grouping and the more recent AIIB (Asian Industrial Infrastructure Bank).
Thus, while wanting Chinese capital and other economic inputs to assist its growth, the Indian ruling bourgeoisie does not want to acknowledge Chinese leadership in Asia. It is significant that Modi chose to begin his visit to China in Xi’an, which was the capital of China in a period when China looked up to India as the homeland of Buddhism. He again stressed the theme of Buddhist ties during his visit to the second country on this tour, Mongolia. No Indian prime minister has ever before visited Mongolia, but the Indian state is now keen to build its ties with countries surrounding China, just as China has been building up its ties with countries in South Asia. (In July, Modi will visit the five Central Asian states including three directly bordering China). Aside from stressing the ties based on Buddhism, during the visit to Mongolia Modi also stressed that both countries were “democracies” (implying that they shared something which China lacked). Mongolia also is rich in energy and mineral resources that the Indian bourgeoisie is eyeing. 14 agreements were signed in the fields of cyber security, policing and surveillance, air services, renewable energy and so on.
In South Korea, which was the last stop on his East Asian tour, Modi said that it was a “crucial” and “indispensable” partner in both India’s economic modernization and the so-called “Act East” policy of his government. South Korea pledged $10 billion to India for infrastructure development, including railways and power generation. India entered into an agreement to explore cooperation in shipbuilding with South Korea, which has the world’s largest shipbuilding industry. There are already 300 Korean companies employing about 40,000 workers which have invested about $3 billion in India. Significantly, agreement was also reached to explore cooperation in defence production, with Modi urging private Korean companies to invest in this sector in India. Although the focus of this visit was clearly on business, the Modi government used the occasion to issue with South Korea a joint condemnation of North Korea’s nuclear program.
With exactly one year of the NDA government completed during this tour, the big capitalists in India and their media houses and think tanks are all crowing that Modi’s foreign policy initiatives this first year have been a “big success”. However, what the government has done has been to promise a free hand to big monopoly capital around the world to come and exploit India’s rich resources and labour under the false promise that this will lead to “growth” which will allegedly benefit all. In the name of ‘honouring its commitments’ to the foreign monopoly companies and foreign governments, the Modi government will attack even more the rights of Indian workers, the rights of Indian peasants and tribal peoples to their land, and the rights of Indian people to oppose its model of “development”. The very visible ambitions of the Indian big bourgeoisie to expand its power and influence in the region and beyond will also undoubtedly incur hostility and resentment among our neighbouring peoples and also threaten to draw our country deeper into the dangers of big power rivalry. For the Indian working class and people, these are not “successes” but growing dangers to our peace, security and livelihood.