The rise of China as a great power is no longer a matter of speculation; it is a given fact. Most nations today seriously consider the Chinese factor when determining policy. The question uppermost in the minds of Indian policy makers is: should we contain or oppose the rise of China, singly or in tandem with others, or should we seek an accommodation? There are no easy answers. No doubt Modi's closest advisors would be grappling with this question on the eve of his first official visit to China as the prime minister of India.
Just as India became independent, a vast strategic shift in the power matrix of Asia took place. Japanese power lay completely shattered at the end of the Second World War. The British withdrew from India leaving India politically divided into two states and its armed forces split - and soon in serious conflict over Kashmir. On the other hand, China wracked by civil war in the last century, with warlords holding sway, not only became politically united, but a new invigorated and a determined government assumed office. The strategic fulcrum of power had shifted in Asia from south to the north of the Himalayas.
The question therefore that faced India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was how to deal with Chinese power on our northern borders. In short, Nehru's answer was to seek an accommodation with China and play for time till India was able to fully develop economically and militarily to meet the emerging challenge. That he failed is another question.
Unfortunately, for present-day policy planners, the power equation with China has worsened since Nehru's time to the detriment of India. China's economy is five times larger than that of India; its military budget three times larger; and its foreign exchange reserves are ten times larger than ours. The Chinese have developed first-rate communications infrastructure right up to our borders; we are still struggling. But we still retain one great strategic advantage - the Indian Ocean where the Indian Navy dominates.
The Indian Ocean is the third largest ocean in the world covering about 20 percent of water on the earth's surface. The Indian peninsula, which stretches about 1,600 km straight into the heart of the ocean, dominates its geographical space. The importance of the Indian Ocean region also lies in the fact that nearly 100,000 ships traverse it on an annual basis carrying 700 million tonnes of cargo, but most important of all there are four transit 'choke-points' of which the Straits of Malacca dominate. The Malacca Straits are a shallow, narrow waterway that connects the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea. At some points it is only 23 metres deep.
China relies heavily on imported oil, gas and other natural resource commodities to feed its growing economy and it is estimated that its crude oil imports may exceed 300 million tonnes shortly. Nearly 18 percent of China's total energy consumption is based on imported oil and at current trends, nearly 80 percent of oil imports pass through this route. In case the Straits of Malacca were ever to be blockaded, it would mean a detour of at least three to four days extra through unsafe waters.
Since Nehru and the 1962 conflict, successive Indian prime ministers have sought neither strategic accommodation nor confrontation with China. While serious attempts were made to settle the boundary question, it was realized that a settlement was not imminent. Therefore it made better policy to first stabilize the border areas to minimize incidents. From denying that a dispute existed under Nehru, to stating that till the issue was settled, there would be no normalization, to Rajiv Gandhi's assertion that relations may develop side by side with the boundary negotiations, the Indian position has moved quite significantly.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee went even further and agreed that a boundary settlement be explored "afresh from a political perspective", thus abandoning Nehru's stance that the Sino-Indian boundary was established by "treaty, custom and usage".
Finally, in Article III of the Political Parameters and Guiding Principles Agreement signed in April 2005, Manmohan Singh accepted a "package settlement" and "adjustment of its position" on the boundary issue. So with India having moved so far, why then does China not agree?
Suffice it to say that China senses no pressure from India, be it military, political or economic. In fact, if gestures be read as harbingers of policy change, we seem to be signalling a move towards the old policy of accommodation. The Rafale deal has been reduced from 126 fighters to a more financially viable 36 fighters; the strength of the Mountain Strike Corps reduced from 90,000 to 35,000 soldiers and politically there has not even been a pro-forma protest when President Xi Jinping announced the building of railway lines, oil and gas pipelines and the China-Pakistan economic corridor through Pakistani-occupied Kashmir. The Chinese remain protectionist on facilitating Indian exports in the key pharma and IT sectors, thus ensuring a continued massive trade deficit.
The task before Modi is daunting as no easy solutions are obvious. He would need the unstinting support of all, for whichever policy option he adopts it will have momentous repercussions.
One thought: Modi should announce the upgrading of the Andaman and Nicobar base to a full-fledged naval command before departure. It would be a signal of intent that the Chinese will not miss.
(R.S. Kalha is a former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, India, and author of book "India-China Boundary Issues - Quest for Settlement (ICWA 2014). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)