While addressing students at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore as well as delivering the keynote address at the Annual Shangri La Dialogue, Indian PM Narendra Modi made some important remarks. While unequivocally pitching for robust ties between India and China, Modi yet again referred to the 21st century being an ‘Asian century’ (something he has done on previous occasions).
During the course of his keynote address at the Shangri La Dialogue, Modi flagged the importance of the India-China relationship:
"I firmly believe that Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together in trust and confidence… India-China cooperation is expanding. Trade is growing. And, we have displayed maturity and wisdom in managing issues and ensuring a peaceful border. There is growing intersection in our international presence." - Prime Minister Narendra Modi
While addressing students at the NTU, Modi also expressed the view about the 21st century being Asia’s century:
“The world is clear that the 21st century is Asia’s century. It is essential to believe in ourselves and know that this is our turn. We must rise to the occasion and take that leadership.”
Outreach to China and Russia Driven by US Unpredictability
The past few months have witnessed a significant shift in India’s approach towards China, the Indian PM visited China in April 2018 and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan. During the course of the Informal Summit, not only were bilateral issues discussed, but key global economic developments (specifically insular policies being adopted by the US) were brought up. Interestingly, both China and India also decided to work jointly in Afghanistan on an economic development project.
New Delhi is trying to improve ties with China, and reboot ties with Russia. This was evident from Modi’s visit to Russia, where a number of international issues like the US withdrawal and India’s unequivocal stand with regard to the purchase of S-400 Air Defence Systems from Russia were placed on the table. Sections of the US establishment have not been comfortable with this purchase, and have even pitched for imposing sanctions on India, under CAATSA. However, Defence Secretary, James Mattis has advised against such a move. New Delhi has made it amply clear that it will go ahead with the purchase, since this is absolutely essential for its defence and security interests.
It is not just India which is re-calibrating its foreign policy. But as a consequence of his inward-looking economic policies, and lack of nuance on complex strategic issues, Trump has compelled a steadfast ally like Japan (one of the key stakeholders of ‘Fair and Free Indo-Pacific) to reach out to China.
In April 2018, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi visited Japan, and held discussions on a number of key strategic and economic issues. In May 2018, Chinese PM Li Keqiang visited Japan to commemorate 40 years of the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Interestingly, Japan and China have even discussed the possibility of cooperating on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Japanese companies already are participating in certain parts of the BRI.
On one hand, New Delhi is part of the narrative of ‘Asian century’ (where India needs to work closely with China), as well as organisations like BRICS, SCO, (India, China and Russia are expected to work together on a number of issues) where there are significant differences with the US on economic and strategic issues. On the other, there is also an increasing emphasis on the need for a Free and Fair ‘Indo-Pacific’ drive by the US (of which India is a key component). While Trump may have been unpredictable on economic issues, and inward-looking, he used this term on more than one occasion, during his Asia trip in November 2017 – something Beijing disapproved of.
Trump’s previous Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson too outlined a reasonably clear vision for the Indo-Pacific, making India an important stakeholder in this narrative. The Quad grouping (consisting of India, US, Japan, Australia) was revived and officials of all four countries met on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in November 2017, re-emphasising the need for a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’.
Only recently, the US Pacific Command was also renamed Indo-Pacific Command. While speaking at a change-of-command ceremony in Hawaii where the command's headquarters is located, Defence Secretary James Mattis said:
"In recognition of the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, today, we rename the US Pacific Command to US Indo-Pacific Command." - James Mattis, US Defence Secretary
The Quad grouping has spoken about the need for developing an alternative to the BRI, though there is no clarity as of now. This is one of the major shortcomings of the grouping, and with Japan and US having differences on the issue of North Korea, it remains to be seen whether Quad grouping can come up with a clear agenda and not just slogans.
New Delhi’s Challenges
New Delhi, thus, needs to straddle different narratives and its foreign policy cannot be driven by dogma of any sort. PM Modi, while delivering the keynote address at Shangri-La dialogue said:
“Our vision stands for a free, open, inclusive region, which embraces us all in a common pursuit of progress and prosperity.”
India does realise the limitations of the Indo-Pacific narrative and the Quad grouping. The Indian decision to refuse Australian participation in the Malabar Exercises to be held in Guam (June 6-15, 2018) is cited as a reiteration of the same.
New Delhi needs to have a reasonable relationship with China, but cannot allow its external outreach to be dictated by Beijing’s sensitivities. Similarly, while ties have strengthened with the US, there will be economic issues as well as geo-political issues, concerning countries like Iran, where New Delhi will not toe Washington’s line. Balancing its relationships will become easier through domestic progress and robust economic growth, since this will help in accelerating connectivity projects within South Asia and outside (in the context of its ‘Act East Policy’).
Even in projects like the ‘Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor’, India can be an important stakeholder if it has more economic resources. The slogans and rhetoric aside, New Delhi now needs to focus on its economy, and ‘transformative policies’ should be a reality not a mere electoral slogan.
(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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