Is India eyeing to become a new power in Asia-Pacific?


M K Bhadrakumar |

Static diplomacy, like stale fish, stinks. Therefore, it is gratifying to see the delightful vagueness of the formulation in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s opening statement at the 15th ASEAN-India Summit at Manila on Monday, while referring obliquely to the South China Sea. PM Modi said:

  • India’s Act East Policy is shaped around the ASEAN, and its centrality in the regional security architecture of the Indo-Pacific region is evident… India assures the ASEAN of its steady support towards achieving a rules-based regional security architecture that best attests to the region’s interests and its peaceful development.

Modi’s reference to “Indo-Pacific” would have caused some confusion – as if Southeast Asians are like boat people entrapped between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. But that is a minor detail.

The salience lies somewhere else, though. The point is about “a rules-based regional security architecture that best attests to the region’s interests and its peaceful development.” The Modi government has jettisoned the Joint Strategic Vision Statement for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region (25 January 2015) issued during President Obama’s visit to India.

The restrained wording suggests that Delhi senses that the ground beneath the feet has shifted and policy adjustments are due. What are the emergent/emerging realities? Three things come into play. One, ASEAN and China have agreed at their summit in Manila that they shall commence negotiations on their planned Code of Conduct in the South China Sea leading to an agreement to secure a peaceful external environment.

Now, this is to be seen against the backdrop of the phenomenal makeover of the ASEAN-China relationship in the past year. The Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in his capacity as the chairman of the ASEAN summit, stated in his characteristic forthright manner on Sunday that the members of ASEAN and China “have to be friends” despite the attempts of “other hotheads” that want to provoke trouble. (Reuters)

Two, during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Vietnam on Saturday, his first visit abroad after the recent Party Congress, the two leaderships issued a joint statement affirming that the two sides have “agreed to manage and control the differences concerning maritime issues and refrain from taking actions that will make the situation complicated and the disputes enlarged, so as to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Overall, China and Vietnam relations are moving in a new direction. A special envoy of Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) Central Committee, traveled to Beijing soon after the Party Congress of the CCP last month. Xi received the special envoy. (Xinhua) Again, in a congratulatory letter ahead of the Party Congress in Beijing, the CPV stated that two communist parties had “united closely, helped each other and experienced various tests in the revolutionary struggle and national liberation cause.”

The CPV, together with the Vietnamese nation and the people, will “always bear in mind the great support and assistance of the CCP” and promote mutual relations as “good neighbors, good friends, good comrades and the good fellow.”Suffice to say, blood is thicker than water. China and Vietnam, together with Cuba, Laos, and North Korea, are the only five countries in the world that are still declaring themselves as “socialist states.”

Three, there are incipient signs of a “thaw” in China-Japan relations. Xi met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the APEC summit, which was followed three days later by a meeting between Abe and Chinese PM Li Keqiang in the Philippines. Xi had urged Abe to take “practical actions” and stressed that the two countries push ahead cooperation within the framework of the One Belt, One Road. (Xinhua) Abe responded positively.

Clearly, after having secured a handsome mandate in the recent elections in Japan and assured of prime ministership till 2021, Abe’s priorities in regional diplomacy are changing. Abe understands that the US-China relations are rapidly transforming and the containment strategy against China has gone phut.

(Beijing announced today, a week after Trump’s visit, that Song Tao, head of the CPC Central Committee’s International Department, is traveling to Pyongyang on coming Friday as Xi’s special envoy – ostensibly to brief the outcome of the 19th CPC party congress!)

Abe’s strong pitch for resuscitating the Trans-Partnership Partnership agreement didn’t impress US President Donald Trump. But the TTP is vital for Japan to push back at China with which it is otherwise unable to compete in the economic domain, saddled with an aging population. Meanwhile, Trump’s thumping success in wrapping up $235 billion worth business deals with China for carries its own powerful message for Japanese companies, which are trapped in their limited domestic market. (This is where the Belt and Road initiative holds the attraction for Abe.)

There are uncertainties in Japan-US alliance, too. During the recent visit to Japan, Trump kept harping on the trade deficit, putting Abe on the defensive. Abe is under pressure to display Japan’s sincere contributions to “America First” (through purchases of weapons from the US and increased Japanese investments in the American economy.) The coming weeks and months will be keenly watched. Abe hopes to visit China and has signaled great interest in an early visit by Xi to Japan.

To be sure, PM Modi’s latest Asian tour took place at a transformative period in regional politics. PM’s remarks at the ASEAN forum signal India’s awareness of the geopolitical realities.

M. K. Bhadrakumar has served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings as India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes extensively in Indian newspapers, Asia Times and the “Indian Punchline”. This piece was first published in Indian Punchline.


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