Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Laying the Foundation for an Asian Commonwealth

The election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India has resulted in a flurry of diplomatic activity in Asia. This despite tension developing between China and Japan on the one hand and China and some Southeast Asian countries on the other hand. The focus has not been limited to one area in particular but can be seen in a wide geographical swathe from South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia.

On May 26, 2014, when Narendra Modi took oaths as the Indian Prime Minister, he invited the leaders of South Asian Association on Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to grace the occasion. Critics might have seen this as an overlord calling his vassals for the crowning ceremony. While someone can easily define it as a step to assert India’s hegemony in the region, it was more about announcing its presence and the opening of a new chapter. The Congress-led government of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) had played second fiddle to the United States even in regional policies, which had allowed China to establish itself in South Asia stronger than ever before. India had to re-define and re-establish its role and status in South Asia.
Some of the recent diplomatic visits

For Modi, it was his first exercise in international diplomacy as Prime Minister and he chose the best way possible, choosing neighbors for first engagement. Modi was laying the ground for bigger things for India in the world.  What the UPA demonstrated is that such a role will never devolve to India by appeasing Washington.  If India wants have a larger-than-South-Asia presence then it would have to be about “all-alignment rather than non-alignment” to paraphrase Prof. Madhav Das Nalapat from Manipal University. The BJP government wants to benefit from all whenever possible. Meanwhile, it also expects to forge a stronger alliance of regional powers. The BJP has mooted a new “Asian Commonwealth” as a regional bloc.

During the past few months, the BJP government has been engaged in heightened diplomatic activity.  Modi, as Prime Minister, chose Bhutan and Nepal as his first destinations overseas. He was in Brazil for the BRICS summit which announced the formation of a new bank. Meanwhile, a lot of lower level engagement was seen in many Asian countries, with BJP delegations visiting countries such as Sri Lanka and Singapore.

The diplomatic traffic became more frenzied a few weeks ago. Narendra Modi visited Japan, where he was warmly welcomed by his counterpart, Shinzo Abe. Modi continued to develop his image with visits to places of cultural importance and even schools, to couple with business meetings and diplomatic negotiations. There was nothing of the hard power that Modi is known for. Modi wore a rarely seen soft-power countenance, even tweeting about places like the Kinkaku-ji, important to the Japanese people.

Modi arrived in Japan against the backdrop of heightened Sino-Japanese differences. PM Abe had added to the tension by hinting at military expansion, even going to the extent of ‘reinterpreting’ Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. China was not quiet on the diplomatic front either. In early July, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited South Korea in a move clearly designed to impress both North Korea and Japan.

However, immediately following Modi’s visit to Japan, the Japanese PM visited South Asia, landing in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in landmark visits. Abe’s visits were framed by increased Chinese involvement in the region. He focused more on the economic front and was less interested in security aspects.

Meanwhile, days after Abe’s visit, the Chinese President made a three country South Asian tour, visiting Maldives, Sri Lanka and India. Incidentally, Xi Jinping arrived in Gujarat, home state of Narendra Modi, on the 64th birthday of the latter. Thereby, the Indian Prime Minister not only had warm interaction with the head of the world’s third largest economy (Shinzo Abe) but also had the man at the helm of the world’s second largest economy as a guest on his birthday.

Thus the last few weeks have seen top level interaction between Modi and the leaders of Japan and China and between Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the leaders of Japan and China. Incidentally, both India and Sri Lanka have been strengthening their ties with the world’s second and third largest economies, irrespective of the fact that relations between China and Japan are tense and those between India and China are not that hot either. 

Meanwhile, in other diplomatic moves, Myanmar President Thein Sein visited Beijing in late June, a few days before Xi Jinping visited South Korea. Meanwhile in late August, President Xi visited Mongolia. On September 1, 2014, the Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Vice-Premier launched a new natural gas pipeline from Russia’s Siberia to China.

Furthermore, leaders of China, Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan gathered in Tajikistan for the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where President Xi met with his counterparts from Russia and Mongolia and suggested a three party economic corridor.China has also been putting forward a proposal for a ‘21st Century Maritime Silk Route’ which could boost economic cooperation between countries from West Asia to East Asia. While there can be some resistance from certain Southeast Asian nations given the recent tensions with China, the proposal has been welcomed by both the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

While the Chinese President was touring South Asia, Nanning, the capital of China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region held the 11th China-ASEAN Expo. National and business leaders from China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) discussed business and the Maritime Silk Route (MSR). Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Thai Deputy Prime Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn expressed positive views of the MSR.

As such, China is in effect, building a Chinese-Centered Asian Commonwealth, mainly in commercial aspects, promoting business cooperation initiatives. They include many parts of Asia, and a successful MSR will incorporate even East Africa where China is also establishing its presence. India cannot sit idle in this process and Modi has shown that his government will not.

Interestingly, the Western powers have looked to create an image in the media of antagonism between China and India, speaking of a Chinese “string of pearls” surrounding India. This was complemented by highlighting border disputes between the two countries. However, as Prof. Nalapat once mentioned at a lecture in Sri Lanka, “not a single bullet has been fired across the border in the last fifty years.” What BJP aspires to is an Asian communal feeling based primarily on economic ties. The most crucial step in this is to build “people to people relations” and increasing economic ties between China and India.

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