A Multilateral Test for Modi


The India-Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and the East Asia Summit (EAS), both in Nay Pyi Daw, Myanmar, on November 11 and 12, are among the major geopolitically significant gatherings of world leaders this month. These interactions will demonstrate if Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proactive engagements over the past six months, at the bilateral level and with BRICS leaders, have effectively improved global perceptions of India.

After Nay Pyi Daw, Modi will head to the G20 meeting in Brisbane, and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Kathmandu. Modi will not attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Beijing, although India has applied for membership of the grouping. China has been the main obstacle to India’s membership, but the first-ever invitation to India to attend the summit—by Chinese president Xi Jinping in July—could signal a reduction in Beijing’s obstruction.

All these meetings will focus on Asia’s growing contribution to global growth, particularly trade agreements like the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). India has expressed support for the RCEP—which includes China but excludes the U.S.—but not yet for the U.S.-led TPP, which is designed to exclude China. The rest of the overlapping membership of the two trade agreements largely comprises ASEAN members and South Pacific countries, most of which are also part of APEC—itself an incipient trading bloc.

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Although political differences and impasses are not usually officially addressed at such summits—where the focus is economic—a majority of the discussions on the sidelines of the formal meetings are likely to center on the spread of jihadist terror and the endeavors of all countries to adjust to the rise of China.

Many Asian countries are either victims of terror attacks, highly susceptible to terrorism, or safe havens for terrorists; the militant Islamic State (IS) has brought this phenomenon to the forefront of foreign policy discourse. Despite the turmoil in West Asia, oil prices are on a downward trajectory and so far the violence has not directly affected other parts of Asia. But with West Asia—the traditional source of energy imports, labour exports and remittances—in disarray, this is an opportune moment for India to strengthen its ‘Look East’ policy to expand economic interactions and security partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region.

As the dominant power in Asia, China is changing the rules in the region with mixed signals to India (frequent high-level visits by Chinese leaders coinciding with border incursions by Chinese troops), with its expansionism in the South China Sea, and by proposing the Maritime Silk Route, a strategic endeavor disguised as an economic initiative to link regional ports, many of which are built by China.

The U.S. has revived its Asia pivot—temporarily sidelined by the more immediate Ukraine and IS crises. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Jakarta on October 20 for President Joko Widodo’s inauguration was followed by meetings with the prime ministers of Australia, Malaysia, and Singapore, the Sultan of Brunei, and the foreign minister of the Philippines. However, China, like Russia in the context of Ukraine, is challenging the global status quo created by dominant western powers to serve their own interests.

Just as China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea was a common thread through Kerry’s meetings, it is expected to also seep into all the multilateral meetings this month. This will be the case even at the India-ASEAN and SAARC summits though China is not a member of either grouping.

For India, China represents a threat as well as an opportunity. Its growing presence in India’s neighbourhood could become a threat, but there is also the opportunity to reset bilateral economic relations by attracting Chinese investments—$20 billion over five years was pledged by Xi during his visit—for India’s considerable infrastructure requirements.

Tackling China’s influence on ASEAN and SAARC is an entirely different challenge. Its massive bilateral trade relations with ASEAN and SAARC member countries dwarf those of India’s. For example, China’s trade with ASEAN member Vietnam was $50 billion in 2013, while India-Vietnam trade is a relatively meagre $8 billion. Similarly, China’s trade with SAARC member Pakistan is $12 billion, while India’s is only $2.6 billion.

However, China also has territorial disputes with most of its maritime neighbours in ASEAN, as well as with Japan. It has so far avoided antagonising all of them at the same time, but the disagreements have persisted. These differences give urgency to the efforts of countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines to unite to uphold agreements—such as the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea—to curb China’s expansionism. At the same time, their economic dependence on China remains high—their trade with China and their participation in global supply chains running through China.

These divergent pulls give New Delhi the strategic space to balance Beijing’s influence on ASEAN countries. At the same time, the need to reduce their economic dependence on China has encouraged these countries to reach out to India.

The onus to respond constructively is on the economic diplomacy-minded Modi. While it will be impossible to match Beijing’s financial clout, creative diplomacy—as seen in India’s recent $100 million line of credit to Vietnam for defence imports—can deepen strategic and political relations with ASEAN countries. India must move purposefully to implement the free trade agreements in goods and services with the grouping. India can also be less reticent on joint military exercises with the more receptive countries in the region.

At the EAS, Modi has the opportunity to build on his prior meetings with leaders like Russian president Vladimir Putin, Obama, and Xi, while reaching out to leaders he has not yet met, such as Widodo and Myanmar’s president U Thein Sein.

The meeting with Thein Sein will be an opportunity for Modi to expand bilateral relations by addressing issues such as trade (a modest $2 billion in 2012-13), insurgencies on the border, and energy cooperation. By assisting in Myanmar’s democratic transformation, India will be closely aligned with its partners in ASEAN and the West.

Ambassador Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director of Gateway House. She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast with concurrent accreditation to several West African countries. This article was originally published at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, a foreign policy think tank in Mumbai, India, established to engage India’s leading corporations and individuals in debate and scholarship on India’s foreign policy and the nation’s role in global affairs.

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