By facilitating the first ever prime ministerial visit to Vietnam in over a decade and offering the country millions of dollars for its defence purchase, India has added a fresh dimension to its ‘Act Asia’ policy. But there is more to it than meets the eye. India is also subtly putting pressure on China to accommodate its interests and this message was clear at the G-20 and the ASEAN meets
One day before landing in China’s Hangzhou for the G-20 summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a visit to Vietnam, the Southeast Asian nation which shares prickly relations with China ever since they fought 11-year-long border war. It opposes Beijing’s claim over the South China Sea so much so that in August it fortified several islands it controls in this part of the Pacific Ocean with mobile rocket launchers.
In this background when the first ever Prime Ministerial visit to Hanoi in the last 15 years was made Chinese daily ‘The Global Times’ saw it as a move to “pile a pressure on Beijing.”
It was also surprised as hitherto cautious India never directly put the “screw on China.” Chinese felt that India was playing the US’ rebalancing game in the Asia-Pacific region. It has grown fidgety especially in view of the fact that at the end of August Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar went to the US to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with his American counterpart Ashton Carter.
China’s known international expert and Director of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations Hu Shisheng said the US-India strategic alliance would create “problems” for China.
Taking their argument a bit further, some Chinese and anti-West scholars termed the current India-US relation as the one between a client and the master, saying New Delhi seems to have jettisoned its independent foreign policy.
However, it is an uncharacteristic comment against India which, rather maintaining its independence in policy matters, has come out in the open to give a sense to its presence in the world. This perception gets reflected well in Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar’s statement which he gave during the opening of an international centre in New Delhi by the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace in April this year.
He said: “The world is not standing still and neither can India. Whatever the peace and extent of this change, history has lessons for an aspiring power: leverage the dominant, collaborate with the convergent, and manage the competition.” This was a subtle message as to what India wants with regard to its international engagement. It also underlined in clear terms that India would not ride piggyback any power to serve its defence or strategic interests.
If New Delhi has resorted to multilateral diplomacy and has given a push to ‘Act East’ policy, experts say, they have been done with an aim to consolidate its position in the Asia-Pacific region. To a larger extent China whose media and think-tank experts do not spare a moment in issuing a threat to India, is also responsible. Unsettled border dispute, endorsement of Pakistan on issues pertaining to terrorism and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, blocking India’s bid to become the member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), rising footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and escalating tension in the South China Sea-are raison d’etre for India to deepen its engagement with the nations of the Southeast region.
Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to Vietnam prior to his landing in China for the G-20 summit is a clear indication in this regard. This trip saw India and Vietnam elevating their strategic partnership to comprehensive strategic partnership, thereby, serving both symbolic and substantive significance to New Delhi’s move in the region.
Of this all, however, was India’s announcement of giving $500 million worth of assistance to Vietnam to help shore up its defence strength. According to Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, one of the leading security and strategic experts in the country, this assistance was provided to Hanoi “with clear understanding that it will have a regional impact.” This apart, New Delhi and Hanoi signed 12 agreements, including a deal to construct offshore patrol boats. Obviously all this was done keeping in mind the China factor.
This loomed large at the G-20 summit also as at the Hangzhou summit of the G-20 countries, India left no one in disillusionment when it said that it would not be able to ratify the Paris Agreement by December 2016, the deadline when all UN members are expected to put seal of approval on emissions’ cut.
It was a big slap on the face of the summit host China as the Climate Change was major agenda of the summit where Beijing wanted major stakeholders like India to lay ground for the successful implementation for the Paris Agreement.
But New Delhi, waiting for the right moment to play its diplomatic card, held its non-entry to the NSG club as the reason for not ratifying the Paris Agreement. By doing this, India put the blame on China’s door as it was the “lone country” which blocked India’s chance at the Seoul held NSG’s plenary meet to become a member of the 48-countries nuclear non-proliferation club that ensures supply of nuclear material and technology to the participants.
There is a feeling that failure by India to ratify the Climate Change agreement may impact the emissions’ cut plan. However, it is a debatable issue because China and the US—the world’s worst polluters, accounting for 38 percent of global emissions, have announced ratification. To enter into force, the Paris Agreement requires ratification by at least 55 countries that account for 55 percent of global emissions.
Nevertheless, at the ASEAN summit in Lao PDR, India raised the issue of security threat posed by terrorism and growing radicalization through ideology of hatred. While by doing so, India was directly hitting at Pakistan, indirectly it was also targeting China for its double standards on terrorism.
It also evaded sidelining the South China Sea issue at the ASEAN summit even as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his recent visit to New Delhi had requested the country to avoid flagging the South China Sea at the G-20, ASEAN and BRICS summit. In rather forceful manner, India emphasized on the importance of maintaining peace, security, stability, unimpeded commerce, freedom of navigation and over flight above the disputed South China Sea, the sea route through which India ships around 50 percent of its trade.
By underlining these matters, India tried to send a message to the world that it was standing by those Southeast Asian countries which are fighting hard to make China accept international tribunal’s verdict on the South China Sea. It should be noted that several ASEAN countries, except for Cambodia is looking for greater Indian involvement in South Asia where China through its trade and mighty military presence is flexing its muscle.
India which was earlier reluctant and non-active in South Asia is now prepared to embark on maritime domain of the region. And this is what has touched raw nerves of Chinese who see it as part of India’s China containment strategy. In the past one year, Indian navy’s ships have visited 50 ports in Asia, Africa and Europe, while Japan has joined annual India-US Malabar series of exercise. India’s engagement with Pacific nations is strengthening.
Two rounds of India-Pacific conclaves have already been taken place. Last year in March, Prime Minister undertook a visit to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka in order to give fillip to New Delhi’s Indian Ocean strategy. For this, some strategists hold Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aggressive policy responsible as within the South Asia region itself, China has a few friends and these issues, according to ambassador Rajiv Sikri, may crop up in the forthcoming Communist Party of China’s meet.