India is already putting a paradigm shift into place, as far as its China policy is concerned.

On May 14, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will begin a three day visit to China. It will be Modi’s first trip to China since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government he leads came to power with an overwhelming majority in 2014. It is also a visit that reciprocates Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to India that same year, as the first international leader to come to India after Modi’s election as Prime Minister.

President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi inthe White House, September 30, 2014 (Pete Souza/White House)

President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi inthe White House, September 30, 2014 (Pete Souza/White House)

There is, naturally, a sharp spotlight on Modi’s visit. India and China have always been wary neighbors, even though politically, all the right moves have been made to ease the trust deficit that continues to throw a spanner in the way of smooth bilateral relations. The prime reason behind such a deficit lies, of course, is the nagging issue of the unresolved border dispute between the two countries.

But unlike his predecessors, Narendra Modi shows a distinct inclination to break the mold that currently hampers India’s ties with China. His government came to power last year on the basis of the promise of development.  It is a pertinent issue—given its economic status, per capita income and the sheer size of its  demographics, India sorely needs infrastructure and investment.

But ideally, development must go hand in hand with India’s rising geopolitical ambitions as well. As India’s largest trading partner, and indeed, its largest neighbor, China is more than a viable option  from which to kick off this agenda. Small wonder, then, that Modi is looking to change how India deals with China.

His visit is geared toward elevating bilateral economic ties above regional rivalry. After visiting Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an (President Xi’s home province), Modi will hold extensive talks with Premier Li Keqiang in order to boost economic ties with China, besides meeting with important leaders from the Chinese business community. Given that China already committed $20 billion in investments to India last year, Modi’s pitch for his ‘Make in India’ campaign looks likely to meet with a receptive audience.

An additional Chinese investment worth $10 billion is on the cards across various sectors, such as railways, with Beijing equally keen to expand its economic footprint in India. Indeed, increasing Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) in Indian manufacturing, as well as greater market access for Indian business in China (and vice-versa) will be crucial in efforts to reduce the trade deficit between the two countries, which is currently hovering around the $40 billion mark.

But geopolitical rivalry is not that easy to put aside. Under Modi’s leadership, India has moved closer to both Japan and the United States, moves which China has watched rather warily. India has also taken a rather firm stand regarding its concerns about the South China Sea, a topic on which China’s sensitivity is globally notorious. Multiple agreements have been signed with the United States on the subject, spanning freedom of navigation and issues of maritime security.

All this serves to highlight that the NDA government has recognized that it cannot be constricted by regional security challenges. Just recently, Indian foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj went on record to state that India needed a proactive approach to deal with China—in what she termed ‘out of the box thinking’. It is a rather pragmatic realization. China’s recent, and wholly unprecedented, successes with its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), combined with the BRICS Development Bank, to its New Silk Road infrastructural initiative, have seen a major and global realignment of its status as an economic and geopolitical power. What is more, it is not likely that the issue of the border dispute—though a priority, as always, on the Indian agenda—is going to see a dramatic breakthrough at any point soon.

Given this context, it is not likely that Modi’s visit will be one that is easy to negotiate. China has maintained a firm grip on its favorite bargaining chip. President Xi’s visit to Pakistan in April concluded with billions of dollars of investments, and more than a hundred JF-17s fighter aircraft. Beijing is also fully aware that India’s warming ties with the United States may cause a few bumps in the path to smooth geopolitical cooperation.

It is not surprising, then, that China has kept up a steady pressure on its concerns regarding the border dispute with India. But here is where the Indian Prime Minister will need to be rather canny. He must acknowledge that while there can be no quick fix solutions to the sticky issue of the border dispute, letting economic ties stagnate because of political quandaries would be damaging, to say the least.

Indeed, New Delhi is already putting a paradigm shift into place, as far as its China policy is concerned. On May 26 last year, India invited Tibetan prime-minister-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, to attend Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. Kiren Rijiju, a native of Arunachal Pradesh, parts of which China claims as its own territory, was appointed junior home minister to the NDA government. Along with three state-level bilateral visits, there have been moves to improve infrastructure along the Indian border with China.

India is also focusing on ramping up its soft power approach to China, using people-to-people contacts, a shared cultural and historical heritage, and a prime ministerial debut on China’s popular micro-blogging site, Sina Weibo, to win itself some brownie points.

These are all steps in the right direction. The question is whether Modi’s visit can make good on not just optics, but substance.