The front-runner to become next prime Minister traveled to a town near the country’s disputed Himalayan border with China over the weekend and bluntly warned Beijing to abandon its territorial ambitions.
For Modi, it was a rare foray into foreign policy on the campaign trail, where he has focused primarily on weaknesses in the domestic economy.
Speaking in Pasighat, a town in India’s northeast Arunachal Pradesh state, and again in Assam near India’s border with Bangladesh, Modi sought to portray himself as strong on defense and unafraid of other regional powers. “No power on earth can snatch away Arunachal Pradesh from India,” Mr. Modi said.
India says Chinese troops crossed into Indian-held territory for several days in April. China denies any incursion. The two countries fought a 1962 war over the border.
India’s next leader will face a volatile neighborhood. In addition to a more assertive and well-armed China, which is looking to play a greater role in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, New Delhi also must deal with the fallout from a diminishing US presence in Afghanistan.
A reduced Western presence there could fuel Islamic militancy along India’s troubled border with Pakistan. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have been gripped by internal political tensions.
In previous speeches, Modi has struck a nationalist chord, promising to restore India’s place in the world and styling himself as a decisive leader. He has lauded former BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for deftly combining “shakti,” or power, with “shanti,” meaning peace.
India conducted a series of atomic-bomb tests in 1998 under Vajpayee’s premiership, making India a nuclear power and drawing international condemnation. Soon after the tests, Vajpayee declared a no-first-use policy toward nuclear weapons, underlining the need for restraint.
In recent years, the BJP has portrayed the governing Congress Party as meek, ineffectual and unwilling to stand up to India’s neighbors. Party leaders lambasted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when he said last year’s alleged Chinese incursion was merely a “localized incident.”
But the Congress-led government has also moved to project a tougher stance against China. In December, India conducted joint anti-submarine warfare exercises with the Japanese navy. It also made a point of landing a C-130 plane near the Chinese border to underscore its ability to deploy troops there.
After a meeting between Singh and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in January, the two nations said they are committed to a global partnership based on “freedom, democracy and rule of law” to maintain peace and stability amid “changes in the strategic environment”—a reference to China’s rise.
China refers to Arunachal Pradesh as south Tibet and claims some 35,000 square miles of territory there.
In 2009, Beijing complained about a visit to the state by Singh, saying the territory was disputed and that India should not “trigger disturbance.”
It has also irked New Delhi with its policy of issuing stapled visas, instead of the standard stamped ones, to the residents of Arunachal Pradesh.
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