Modi pledges 'strong' foreign policy ahead of China talks

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India's new nationalist government promised on Monday to pursue a more muscular foreign policy and "engage energetically" with China as Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepared to host Beijing's top diplomat.

In a keynote speech before parliament that was written by Mr Modi, President Pranab Mukherjee said India wanted peaceful and friendly relations with all countries but would not "shy away" from confrontation when necessary.

He also said that Mr Modi's newly-elected government was "committed to building a strong, self-reliant and self-confident India" that wanted to take its "rightful place in the comity of nations".

Mr Modi, whose right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ousted the ruling Congress party last month after a landslide election victory, has long argued that India has been punching below its weight on the world stage and has lost ground to its nuclear-armed rival and neighbour China.

After promising to shore up relations with other South Asian countries which have forged closer ties to Beijing during the last decade of Congress rule, Mr Mukherjee singled out China for mention in his speech.

"My government will engage energetically with other neighbours in our region, including China, with whom we will work to further develop our Strategic and Cooperative Partnership," he said.

Mr Modi is due to hold talks later in the day with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi who also held talks with his Indian counterpart on Sunday.

India described the talks between Mr Wang and Sushma Swaraj as a "productive and substantive" step towards stronger relations between the neighbours, whose ties have long been frosty over a border dispute in the Himalayas.

"In our view, this is a productive beginning between the new government of India and the Chinese government," foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said.

Mr Wang, for this part, told an Indian newspaper that China wanted to "cement our existing friendship and explore further cooperation".

Mr Modi invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit India later this year, extending an olive branch to one of New Delhi's traditional rivals.

Despite his reputation as a hardline nationalist, Modi has spoken of his admiration for China's economic growth in the last decade, and he made several trips to Beijing in his previous post as chief minister of Gujarat state.

In a speech in New Delhi on Sunday night, Mr Modi said that India needed to up its game in order to compete with China.

"If India has to compete with China, the focus should be on skill, scale and speed," the prime minister said.

Mr Modi faces a tough task of dealing with an increasingly assertive and well-armed China, which is looking to play a larger role in South Asia, while still trying to strengthen economic ties with Beijing.

Relations are also still dogged by mutual suspicion - a legacy of a brief, bloody border war in 1962 over the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, that is nestled in the eastern stretch of the Himalayas that China claims as its own.