TIME Asia

India’s Modi and China’s Xi: Frenemies, or Just Plain Enemies?

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi comes out of a meeting room to receive his Bhutanese counterpart Tshering Tobgay before the start a bilateral meeting in New Delhi on May 27, 2014 Adnan Abidi—Reuters

With two nationalists in power, relations between the world’s two most populous nations could turn even frostier

Narendra Modi, the newly installed Prime Minister of India, has no shortage of problems to tackle. The slumping economy requires a hefty dose of difficult reforms to get moving again. Malnourishment, miserable health conditions and a lack of opportunity haunt hundreds of millions of poor. Corruption is out of control. Unrest is rampant in the country’s east. And then there is the pesky issue of foreign policy, especially the ongoing tensions with India’s neighbors. That means Pakistan, of course, but also that other Asian giant — China.

China and India would appear to have endless reasons to cooperate. The world’s two most populous nations are both developing nations eager to improve the welfare of their 2.6 billion people and attain their rightful position on the world stage. In the 1950s, in the early years of India’s independence, hopes were high that India and China would be close allies, a spirit captured in a phrase popular at the time — “Hindi, Chini, bhai bhai,” or “Indians and Chinese are brothers.” Those high expectations were dashed in 1962, when China armed forces invaded India over border disputes. The war was a humiliation for the Indians and left New Delhi’s relations with Beijing under a permanent dark cloud.

Still today, the two warily glare at each other over that contested border, their disagreements left unresolved. China continually presses its claims to pieces of Indian territory; India continues to annoy China by sheltering the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader Beijing considers a dangerous separatist. The last Indian administration, led by Congress’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, tried its best to appear friendly with China, smiling at BRIC summits and promoting greater economic exchange, but “Hindi, Chini, bhai bhai” remains a distant memory.

Now comes Modi. Though generally tight-lipped on foreign policy matters, India’s new leader is known as a nationalist figure, and therefore probably more prone to stand up to China, especially on sensitive issues like their continued border disputes. During a February visit to Arunachal Pradesh, a state in India’s far east that China claims as “South Tibet,” Modi took a hard line on the issue. “No power on earth can snatch away Arunachal Pradesh,” Modi boomed in a speech. “The world does not welcome the mind-set of expansion in today’s times. China will also have to leave behind its mind-set of expansion.”

On the other side, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been living up to his own reputation as a nationalist. He has embroiled China in a series of territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines and, most recently, Vietnam. Xi made a similar stab at India only weeks after he formally took office. In April 2013, a contingent of Chinese soldiers set up a camp in a disputed region along the border between the two countries in Ladakh, setting up a tense confrontation that lasted several weeks. The incident eventually ended peacefully, but members of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were irate over what they saw as a wimpy response from the Congress government. “You may have some security options, you may have some diplomatic options, but being clueless is not an option,” the BJP’s Arun Jaitley, Modi’s Finance Minister, criticized at the time. Such strong words offer an indication of how Modi might respond in similar crises on his watch. “China has this inexplicable proclivity to needle India and test it with these minor provocations at inopportune times,” says Jeff Smith, a fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council and author of the book Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the Twenty-First Century. “If they continue you will have more pressure on a Modi government to respond with a little more machismo.”

Such an outcome, however, is not guaranteed. Beijing seems to be taking a surprisingly soft stance on Modi. After his strong comments in Arunachal Pradesh in February, the response from the often rabidly nationalist Chinese state media was unusually muted. A commentary in the state-run Global Times called Modi’s statement “harsh,” but went on to dismiss it as pre-election rhetoric. “There is no need to exaggerate the significance of Modi’s remarks,” the newspaper noted. China has so many other foreign policy headaches on its plate that it may not need to create another with Modi. Beijing is embroiled in a range of contentious issues with the U.S. — from cyberspying to trade spats — while its aggressive moves on territorial disputes in East Asia have alarmed many of its neighbors. Since Modi’s election, the Chinese press has been talking up the benefits of China-India cooperation. The China Daily, in an editorial congratulating Modi on his victory, stressed the two countries’ shared interests. “The common aspiration for prosperity and subsequent need for a peaceful environment for national development give the two neighbors additional reasons to forge a more constructive relationship,” the newspaper said.

Modi might feel the same. He swept to power on the hope that he could revive India’s economic growth, and Chinese investment and trade could help him do that. As chief minister of Gujarat, he already saw the value in tapping China’s economic strength. In 2011, he visited China and made a salesman’s pitch to woo Chinese companies to India. “Our job in the government is to create the right kind of environment for you to come and enjoy your creativity,” Modi pronounced in a speech in Chengdu.

There is even some talk that Modi’s nationalist credentials might make it easier for him to score a diplomatic breakthrough with China. One Chinese political commentator mused that Modi is “likely to become India’s ‘Nixon,’” referring to the hard-line U.S. President’s surprise accommodation with Mao in the 1970s. “There is a bigger window for material improvement in India-China relations under Modi, but there is also a bigger window for confrontation,” says Smith. Which route Modi and Xi choose will determine if “Hindi, Chini, bhai bhai” can become reality, or remain a distant dream.

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