Narendra Modi is probably the most articulate Indian prime minister after Jawaharlal Nehru. On his nation’s relationship with , he expressed a vision of “making one plus one, 11” and going “from inches to miles”. At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, his keynote speech carefully blended vision and rhetoric. His connection between a lion nation and a Lion City, and description of Singapore as a springboard to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, could not be sweeter for the host.
But more important was what Modi didn’t say, particularly in relation to China. He avoided the word “Quad”, describing the grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia that is widely perceived as a counterbalance to rising China’s presence in the Indo-Pacific.
Nor did he comment on America’s renaming of the US Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command a few days ago, as if nothing had happened. Yes, he did mention the “Indo-Pacific” quite a few times, but not as a strategy, rather, only as a “natural region”.
Instead, he lauded India’s “multi-layer relations with China”, citing “strong and stable relations between our two nations are an important factor for global peace and progress”. His remarks were almost immediately echoed by the Chinese delegation attending the Shangri-La Dialogue.
The Wuhan summit between President Xi-Jinping and Modi in April may prove to be the turning point in China-India relations, for the better. Ironically, it was the Doklam face-off in 2017 that provided a chance to open what both described as a “new chapter”. And Modi could only be happy to concur with Xi that both countries should be good neighbours and good friends.
The question is how. The solution may start from a rediscovery of the importance of bilateral relations and mutual respect. The relationship, which includes nearly 40 per cent of the world’s population and 20 per cent of the global economy, is obviously one that neither side can afford to neglect. Furthermore, 20 years down the road, China could become the largest economy and India the third-largest.
If the two countries are not at loggerheads, they may indeed usher in an Asian century.
India-US relations are also warming up, but it is superficial to argue that New Delhi is tilting towards Washington just because of American arms sale to India and a few joint exercises in the Indian Ocean. As one of the founders of Non-Aligned Movement, India pursues a foreign policy of interacting with, but keeping a safe distance from, everybody.
Comparatively, it seems safe to argue that China and India have more in common. Both are populous, fast-developing countries. They all support multi-polarity and oppose unilateralism and protectionism.
They even to agree on what they seemingly disagree on. Modi is not shy of chanting “rules-based order” and “freedom of navigation” to showcase India is a democracy. But what exactly are the rules?
Both China and India made reservations for settlement of disputes under article 298 of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. On freedom of navigation, India’s position is like, but much more stringent than, that of China. India won’t allow foreign military exercises or manoeuvres in its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf without consent. In China’s domestic law, there is no request for consent for any foreign military activities in its exclusive economic zone, although China holds that America’s close-in surveillance and reconnaissance in this area are in violation of the rights and interests of the littoral state, as defined in the Law of the Sea.
Modi’s remarks that India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as directed against any country dooms the Quad. The Quad was premature in that these countries can hardly take a united view on China.
And India, as an immediate neighbour, clearly has more stakes in not being seen as the mastermind against China. As Indian Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba put it bluntly in a press conference, “India is the only county in the Quad with a land border with China. In case of conflict … nobody will come and hold your hand”.
So, does the renaming of the US Indo-Pacific Command matter? Certainly not for China, if, apart from rebranding, everything remains the same. According to William Shakespeare, “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, but the US Indo-Pacific Command is not necessarily a sweet rose for India in another name. On the contrary, it could cast an everlasting long shadow over the Indian Ocean, which India jealously guards as its own sphere of influence.
Modi rightly pointed out that both India and China need to be sensitive to each other’s interests. Again, the question is how.
On the one hand, for China, some of India’s concerns, such as passage in the South China Sea, should not be a concern at all. As a Chinese delegate said at the Shangri-La Dialogue, 55 per cent of India’s international trade goes through the South China Sea, but like any other maritime trade that goes through there, it doesn’t have a problem.
On the other hand, could India be open-minded about China’s growing activities and even military presence in the Indian Ocean?
This is no easy job, but not impossible, if these issues are examined from a higher strategic perspective. Both China and India are ambitious countries with a clear vision for the future. The Chinese dream and New India 2022 are surprisingly similar in terms of objectives and road maps.
China’s Belt And Road Initiative goes west while India’s Act East extends to the east. They are bound to meet midway. If history has once again offered a chance for the two great civilizations to interact, against a broader horizon, the two countries should embrace it, as they did on the Silk Road more than 2,000 years ago.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Modi charts middle course between China and America