Modi is threading a path between a rising China and an uncertain US
Modi is threading a path between a rising China and an uncertain USBloomberg|Jun 01, 2018, 08.43 PM ISTBy Marc Champion and Iain Marlow
US Defense Secretary James Mattis described India as the âfulcrumââ of security in the Indo-Pacific region as he traveled this week to an annual security conference in Singapore, attended for the first time by an Indian leader.
But if Mattis was hoping that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would use the platform to join the US, Ja pan and Australia -- a grouping known as the Quad -- in a more muscular challenge to Chinaâs regional expansion, he was disappointed. Instead, Indiaâs strongest leader in decades navigated carefully between the two regional military powers.
Modi studiously avoided any mention of the Quad in his speech, and he hammered the kind of protectionism currently practiced by the US, both of which were sure to satisfy Chinese delegates.
âAsia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each otherâs interests,â Modi told defense ministers and military officials assembled for the Shangri-La Dialogue, an event organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
He did echo US appeals for âfreedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.â And he attacked governments that put other nations under âimpossible b urdens of debt.â Both were likely references to China for its behavior in the disputed South China Sea and its Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure projects -- which can come courtesy of large loans -- in other countries.
Yet Modi has done something of a turnaround on China in recent weeks, a far cry from his ground-breaking shift to deepen engagement with the US when he came to power in 2014, which was accompanied by a show at home of standing up to Chinaâs rise with a more robust âact eastââ policy.
Tensions came to a head last summer when Indian and Chinese troops engaged in a standoff over a long-running border dispute. To embrace a more proactive India, the US rebranded its Asia-Pacific policy as âIndo-Pacific,â a change that fuels Chinese concerns about containment.
âThe organizers of the Shangri-La Dialogue have been wa iting for Mr. Modi for a while. India is seen as the linchpin for a longer term coalition to confront China,â said Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. âChanging Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific was a means of getting Indian military capacity into the equation.â
Still, tensions between China and India later subsided, and Modi has seemingly warmed to President Xi Jinping. On Friday, he reassured China that the Indo-Pacific was neither a strategy nor a club.
At the end of April, when the worldâs attention was focused on an historic summit between the leaders of South Korea and North Korea, Xi invited Modi for two days of informal talks in central China. Around the same time, reports emerged that India decided against inviting Australia to join annual naval exercises with India, Japan and the US â"- something Washington wanted and Beijing didnât.
Next week, Modi will travel to China again, for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security body dominated by China and Russia that India joined as a full member last year.
Whether these gestures represent a policy shift, or simply a desire to ensure thereâs no embarrassing repetition of last yearâs border clashes ahead of Indian elections in 2019, is a matter for dispute among Indian foreign policy analysts. Thereâs also the question of how much of any thaw might be down to Xi, who has embarked on outreach with rivals including Japan as China faces pressure from US President Donald Trump over its trade policies.
For some, the change is real, driven by a growing recognition that India simply lacks the economic and military capacity to compete with China, combined with growing uncertainty over the reliability of the US
âReality has hit homeââ when it comes to measuring up to Chinaâs power, said Kanti Prasad Bajpai, director of the Center on Asia and Globalisation at Singaporeâs Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Chinaâs military budget is more than three times as large as Indiaâs, and its economy almost five times as big.
âModi has simply understood that after a certain point India is not in a position to bear its fangs to China, especially given the unreliability of the US under Trump,ââ he said.
The raw spending numbers may even underestimate the disparity in hard power between the worldâs two most populous nations. Whereas China has plowed resources into developing and buying high-tech weapons, India spends as much as two-thirds of its defense budget on routine expenses such as personnel. In recent years, the per centage of the budget spent on capital investment has fallen.
When it comes to competing economically for the loyalties of countries in the region, the gap is even wider. India has no response to Chinaâs Belt and Ro ad program, according to Syed Munir Khasru, director of the Institute for Policy, Advocacy and Governance, an international think tank headquartered in Bangladesh.
âIndia has a lot of soft power, with rich history, art and culture, Bollywood and its vibrant democracy and so on,ââ Khasru said by phone. âBut China has cash power.â
For others, though, the change is only one of optics, geared to the coming election. The security establishment remains alarmed by Chinese military expansion, in particular by signs it is looking for footholds in the Indian Ocean, which India has always seen as its preserve, said Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, who heads the South Asia program at IISS. Modi is simply seeking to ensure tensions donât flare up for the next year, he said.
At the same time, India doesnât want to let the US draw it into a confrontation with China over the South China Sea, where Chinaâs territorial claims cross over with nations such as Vietnam and the Philippi nes. India has always been leery of freedom-of-navigation operations -- where ships sail through areas of contention to make a point -- and of developing the Quad into a security-focused organization.
âModi,ââ said Roy-Chaudhury, âis relentlessly pragmatic.ââ
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