Trudy Harris New Delhi

India’s new government promised yesterday 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 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 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”.

Modi, whose right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party ousted the ruling Congress party last month, has long argued that India punched below its weight on the world stage and had lost ground to its nuclear-armed neighbour, China.

After promising to shore up relations with other south Asian countries, which have forged closer ties with Beijing during the past decade, 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 co-operative partnership,” he said.

Modi was due to hold talks later in the day with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who held talks with his Indian counterpart on Sunday.

India described the talks between 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.

Modi invited Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, 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 past 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, 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.

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.

China is India’s biggest trading partner.

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

In February, Modi warned China to shed its “expansionist mindset” at an election rally in Arunachal Pradesh.

China hit back, saying it had “never waged a war of aggression to occupy any inch of land of other countries”.

The neighbours have held a series of talks to try to resolve their border dispute, but the frontier still bristles with tension. –