An assertive China presents Prime Minister Modi with his most intractable foreign policy challenge, but there are indications that Beijing may be getting a little edgy.

China considered itself to be a rival of the US. In its world view, India was a regional player, at best the first among equals in South Asia.

David vs Goliath

In absolute terms, there is some merit in this argument. China’s $11.4-trillion economy, the world’s second largest, is five times India’s, which is world’s sixth largest, with a GDP of $2.3 trillion in 2016.

Last year, China’s per capita income, at $8,260, was five times the comparable figure of $1,718 for India. It is the world’s largest manufacturer of goods, its biggest trading nation and its military budget, at $131 billion is more than three times larger than India’s annual defence spending of $40 billion.

Asian equations, specially between the two giant economies of China and India will be in focus with the installation of Donald Trump as the 45th US president.

Trump’s belligerent ‘America First’ foreign and commercial policy stance, will in all likelihood, force China to curb its manufactured goods exports to the US, with whom it has a whopping and patently unsustainable trade surplus of nearly half a trillion dollars! It is unlikely that even US MNCs, which have huge export bases in China, could prevail upon Trump to not push back imports from China. This should push Chinese exporters to look for alternate markets during the next five to 10 years, during which China completes its planned switch to greater reliance on domestic consumption. India, with its growing and potentially large domestic markets and long track record of trade deficits, would offer a tempting opportunity for Chinese exporters looking to divert their exports and utilising their installed capacities.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has struck a delicate balance of engaging with China where there is mutual benefit and standing up to the South Asian neighbour where India’s strategic interests demand.

Dealing with China is arguably Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most daunting foreign policy challenge. That’s because it is difficult to fit the Middle Kingdom into any of the comfortable stereotypes that Indian diplomats have got used to.

A foreign policy observer believes it is time for India to move towards a more flexible approach towards China.

It has been suggested that New Delhi’s bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) was an “extraordinary exercise in realpolitik”, that the Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi “is not easily rattled by disapproving noises at home or abroad”. One analyst referring to China’s opposition put it rather colourfully that Beijing behaved “not as an enlightened power but as a strategic small-timer, with the petty, perfidious and short-termist mindset of a Pyongyang dictator or a Rawalpindi general”.

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