Modi’s subtle message to China

Modi’s subtle message to China

While Modi has reached out to China publicly in an attempt to foster a bilateral rapprochement, the Prime Minister’s recent visits suggest the undertaking of an aggressive political-economic stance on India’s part, as it strives to compete with China for foreign influence in Central Asia. 

Prime Minister Modi’s recent eight day sojourn to Russia and Central Asian countries subtly outlined the new geopolitical dynamics at work between India and China.

Analysts have focused on the outcomes of the BRICS and SCO Summit held in Russia, the off-course meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of BRICS, and the meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of SCO.

The multilateral meetings, as well as the rendezvous on the sidelines with the Pakistani Prime Minister, had some significant results. At the BRICS Summit, Modi suggested that BRICS countries should cooperate in other areas (10 in total), including sports, agriculture, and clean energy.

During his meeting with the Pakistani PM, Nawaz Sharif, one of the significant takeaways was that Modi would be visiting Pakistan for the SAARC Summit in 2016. If one were to look at the Central Asian visit with a critical eye, it seems Modi was able to send a clear message to China.

India is prepared to cooperate with China bilaterally, as well as at the multilateral level, in organizations like BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

However, China’s increasing influence in regions like Central Asia will not go unchallenged, and India too will seek to increase its presence through effective utilization of soft power, building on historical links, and cooperation in areas like medicine and information technology.

Soft power and historical links

It is true that in economic terms India’s presence in the region pales in comparison to the Chinese, who have undertaken massive investments in the region. In order to counter this, Modi has tried to emphasize India’s common historical links with host countries in order to send an unequivocal message that India will not allow itself to be overshadowed.

In Uzbekistan, where Modi landed first, not only did he state that the relationship has ancient roots, but he also spoke about the popularity of Bollywood movies. The Indian PM’s engagements also included an interaction with Indologists and Hindi Linguists.

In Kazakhstan too, Modi referred to the common heritage between India and Kazakhstan. The PM, while speaking at Nazarbayev University, referred to the commonalities between India and Central Asia.

In particular, he mentioned the fact that “the Islamic heritage of both India and Central Asia is defined by the highest ideals of Islam — knowledge, piety, compassion and welfare. This is a heritage founded on the principle of love and devotion.”

In Turkmenistan, Modi inaugurated a Centre for Yoga and Traditional Medicine and unveiled a bust of Mahatma Gandhi.

The Indian PM realizes that mere soft power is not enough to carve out a substantial relationship. It is for this reason that Modi spoke about giving a greater thrust to economic relationships with all the Central Asian countries he visited and also put forth certain economic projects aimed at enhancing connectivity between India and Central Asia.

One example of these is the North-South Corridor. In Kazakhstan, Modi and Kazakh PM Massimov launched the first exploratory drilling of Satpayev oil block by OVL and KazMunaiGas.

The Indian PM also addressed a group of Indian and Kazakh CEOs, urging the latter to invest in renewable energy while also pushing for greater cooperation in areas like health and cyber security. In Turkmenistan, Modi made it clear that India was in favour of the TAPI pipeline. The joint statement categorically stated that TAPI was a “key pillar” of economic engagement between both countries.


Modi also accorded high priority to connectivity with Central Asia during his discussions.

The Prime Minister proposed that Uzbekistan become a member of the International North-South Transport Corridor, a ship, rail, and land route for moving freight between India, Russia, Iran, Europe, and Central Asia.

Modi also sought the Uzbekistan President’s support to become part of the Ashgabat Agreement – which is a transit pact established in 2011 between Uzbekistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, and Oman. The Indian PM also received an endorsement by Turkmenistan’s president to become part of the Ashgabat Agreement.

Terrorism and strategic issues

The Indian PM also made sure that important issues like the war in Afghanistan, which affect India and Central Asia, were on the agenda. He raised the issue of terrorism in his meetings with Central Asian leaders in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

His reference to the commonality between the Islamic heritage of India and Central Asia was relevant in this context, where India has long been seen as supporter of secular governments in Afghanistan. “We have shared interest in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan and Central Asia. We have also common purpose in combating terrorism and extremism in our region.”

Apart from sending a strong message to China that India will not surrender in important regions, Modi also kept in mind changing geo-political equations. India’s relations with Russia, another important player in Central Asia, have witnessed a slight deterioration recently due to Moscow’s increasing proximity with Islamabad and India’s improving ties with Washington.

Modi made the right noises in Central Asia. It remains to be seen whether India can effectively follow up on some of the important promises made during the visit.

About Author

Tridivesh Maini

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, New Delhi. Maini was an Asia Society India-Pakistan Regional Young Leaders Initiative (IPRYLI) Fellow (2013-2014). He has worked earlier with The Indian Express (New Delhi), The Institute of South Asian Studies (Singapore) and The Reliance Group of Industries (New Delhi). He is a regular contributor for a number of publications including The Global Times (Beijing), The Hindu and The Diplomat.