Quest for a new Asia

Modi’s visit to the US was the final step in outlining an unstated quasi-alliance with the democracies of the Asia-Pacific

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s visit to India on October 27-28 elicited muted interest in Indian media, pre-occupied with state election results and the uproar over accounts of Indians in foreign banks. Call it coincidence, but as Prime Minister Dung arrived in India, his foreign minister back home was receiving the Chinese foreign policy czar — state councillor Yang Jiechi. This was a reverse replay of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee being on a state visit to Vietnam mid-September as President Xi Jinping of China arrived in India on September 17-19. Vietnam was both attempting to contain China and engage it. This will be a drama frequently re-enacted by others in Asia in coming decades.

While the “Look East” approach was crafted by the government of P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1991, to cope with the post-Cold War world, the basic theme of connecting India to the rapidly developing economies of the Asean continued under successive governments, fructifying in an agreement on the Asean-India Free Trade Area (AIFTA) in 2009. Chinese assertiveness since 2009 vis-a-vis its maritime neighbours fractured the 10-member bloc’s unity, forcing some to seek separate solutions to their security dilemmas. Thus, a strategic dimension was added to Indian engagement with some of the Asean nations. India began replicating the Chinese approach, gradually enhancing its economic and security footprint in Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Burma. What is new with the Modi government is its bolder execution.

The joint statement at the end of the Vietnamese Prime Minister’s visit reiterates the “strategic partnership”, intended to lead to peace and prosperity in the region. Bilateral trade, gaining from the $100 million line of credit announced during President Mukherjee’s visit to Vietnam, is expected to double by 2020 from the current $7 billion per annum. Cooperation in oil and gas, dating from 1988, is to be enhanced. Some of the designated fields may well be in the nine-dash zone claimed by China. A good part of the joint statement thus emphasises the freedom of navigation in the East and South China Seas besides upholding the supremacy of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Seas, called UNCLOS. It also declared that bilateral disputes must be resolved peacefully. India, in fact, operates from high moral ground, having submitted to arbitration under the UNCLOS in its dispute with Bangladesh and accepting an award largely in favour of the latter.

China would also note that India may finally be selling its cruise missile BrahMos to Vietnam, apparently having obtained the concurrence of its joint developer, Russia. This capacity-building of Vietnam, to strengthen its access denial capability in its legitimate waters, is part of a larger maze of similar moves by others to enhance capabilities of other Asean members affected by Chinese unilateral claims in the South China Sea. Japan and the US are building up the defensive capability of the Philippines, with the latter signing an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement. The US, meanwhile, deployed its state-of-the-art littoral combat ship in Singapore.

Prime Minister Modi has adopted a complex strategy towards China, built on foundations laid long ago by his predecessors. He met President Xi before engaging the US and Japan, on the sidelines of the Brics Summit in Brazil. He accepted the Chinese proposal for a Brics bank and has now let India join the new Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, despite the US and its allies boycotting it. But he then visited Japan and demonstrated growing convergence of Indo-Japanese interests by mutual bonhomie and expansive rhetoric. His visit to the US was the final step in outlining an unstated quasi-alliance with democracies of the Asia-Pacific, on the Chinese periphery, as well as with nationalistic resistors of Chinese dominance, like Vietnam.

But glaring is the unwillingness so far to engage with equal alacrity a country like Indonesia — the largest Islamic country and a democracy which too has issues with China’s cartographic aggression as the economic zone around its Natuna Islands also falls in the nine-dash Chinese line. Indonesia’s newly elected President Jokowi needs to be drawn into helping shape a new security order for Asia. Henry Kissinger, in his new book World Order, dissects the challenges besetting the nation states. He concludes that the contemporary quest will require a “coherent strategy to establish a concept of order within the various regions and to relate these regions to one another”.

The danger is that the Modi government may falter in relating strategy to tactics or diplomacy. After the first set of moves, counter-measures by China can be expected.
The challenge is to ensure that as India entrenches itself in the Chinese periphery, it secures its first island chain — the Maldives and Sri Lanka — by a deft use of the carrot and stick. The visit by a Chinese submarine to a Sri Lankan port on the eve of President Xi’s visit to India was provocative, as was the handing over of Male airport to Chinese companies by the Maldivians.

The Chinese will contest ONGC prospecting in Vietnamese waters it disputes. The Indian strategy must perforce rest on its collective past and its history, and not merely some mythical version of it.

It has to be woven from Nehruvian idealism, Patel’s realism, Indira Gandhi’s nationalism, P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Machiavellian subtlety and A.B. Vajpayee’s humanism. Fractured visions fed by fear and hatred will not provide the counter-point to China, either in Asia or globally. Success or failure in crafting such a vision, that relates Indian values to Indian interests, will determine whether history will view Mr Modi as a statesman.

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry.

He tweets at @ambkcsingh

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