RIDING THE WAVES

Narendra Modi’s renewed push in the Indian Ocean may upset China’s Silk Road ambitions

Quartz india
Quartz india

India is refashioning its foreign and defence policies and moving its ship of state with more ambition than ambivalence, and more coherence than confusion.

There is renewed activity, clearer articulation of interests, and a little more assertion. These were long overdue given India’s rapidly changing neighbourhood—the $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) announced last year will give Beijing access to the Indian Ocean through Gwadar besides running through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

The CPEC is part of the larger Silk Road initiative, stretching over Eurasia via South Asia towards Africa and Europe. The Silk Road’s maritime component runs through the Indian Ocean, creating further concern.

Add to this the deployment of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean, which raise new questions about China’s long-term objectives. Coupled with the rhetoric of restoring—or imposing—China’s greatness in the world, obvious questions rise about its long-term intentions.

A major part of India’s energized thinking is about maintaining its pole position in the Indian Ocean. It’s clear the waters bearing India’s name are no longer quiet but increasingly churning with competition. India’s geographical advantage is obvious but maintaining that advantage throughout this “century of the seas” requires work.

Last week’s events are a good example of the work in progress. India signed a logistics support agreement with the United States, prime minister Narendra Modi visited Vietnam on his way to the G20 summit in China, and senior officials laid out India’s vision for the Indian Ocean in great detail at a conference in Singapore.

The Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement was signed during Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s visit to Washington after a decade of debate and doubts. It allows the two countries to use each other’s military facilities for refuelling, food, and medical services, among other benefits.

The agreement multiplies the Indian navy’s potential reach by allowing access to U.S. bases in Djibouti and Diego Garcia. While critics have focused on US access to Indian bases, the agreement works both ways besides sending an important signal. Even if Indian ships are unlikely to float too far from home, the possibility that they can is important.

There is a clear attempt to utilise the remaining days of president Barack Obama to move further on defence cooperation and crystallise a few big technology transfer issues to illustrate India’s status as a “major defence partner.” US defence secretary Ash Carter, who has opened several new doors for India, is keen to create a strong legacy for Obama vis-à-vis India.

Modi’s visit to Vietnam, the first in 15 years by an Indian prime minister, too was a marker. He called Vietnam “a strong pillar of India’s Act East policy,” mincing no words. India and Vietnam share concerns about China’s rising military power and its aggressive behaviour in the region.

During the visit, a total of 12 agreements were signed while Modi announced a new line of credit worth $500 million for defence cooperation with Vietnam. He also upgraded relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, talking of a “new direction, momentum and substance” in bilateral cooperation with his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

Vietnam, having fought a war with China in 1979, is in the process of augmenting its defences to protect its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone against claims and constant intrusions from Beijing. The clincher would be if India actually does sell the Brahmos cruise missiles to Vietnam—the two sides have been discussing the possibility.

Modi’s visit was a signal to China that the game can be played both ways. If China can send submarines to Sri Lanka and bolster Pakistan as a permanent enemy against India, New Delhi, too, has options because an Asian century doesn’t mean a Chinese century.

Moving on to the third important event—a conference on the Indian Ocean in Singapore where Indian leaders articulated their vision for the region with ministers from Bangladesh, Thailand, and Vietnam, among others. Indian ideas were inclusive and cooperative in sharp contrast to China’s “tianxia,” a conveniently Sino-centric historic view being promoted through official channels and via track 2 dialogues.

Chinese communists, looking for a central organizing principle for today’s world, have gone back in history to revive the concept of “tianxia” or “all under heaven” when the Chinese emperor ruled with a divine decree. The idea goes back to 5th century BC when other kingdoms paid obeisance to the Chinese imperial court under a tribute system and were granted “legitimacy” to rule their lands.

The exotica emanating from Chinese history books reinterpreted by scholars at state-supported think tanks to create a “Chinese worldview” is formidable, especially in combination with the wider world’s tendency to be extremely sensitive to Chinese concerns.

Foreign secretary S. Jaishankar, while presenting India’s view, effectively countered this China-centric approach by offering a stake to littoral states, further fleshing out Modi’s framework outlined last year during his March 2015 visit to the Seychelles and Mauritius.

Jaishankar talked about “reviving the Indian Ocean as a geopolitical concept” with a “sharper” and more integrated personality that brings the continents of Australia and Africa closer in a “pan-oceanic framework.” “For the Indian Ocean to attain its true potential, it is imperative that India, which is its centre of gravity, should be a facilitator rather than an obstruction,” he said.

That is why the emphasis on ports and port-led development to make India’s coastline more “relevant” to the future of the Indian Ocean, aggressive development of some of the islands, pushing the Chabahar port project with Iran, enhancing maritime logistics in Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles, increasing regional security cooperation through the 35-nation Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, and strengthening the 21-member Indian Ocean Rim Association as a platform to create a “common ethos.”

He talked about ensuring the “smooth and uninterrupted flow of one-third of the world’s bulk cargo and half its container traffic” as a major responsibility. But it should become a collective enterprise with time. “We must take full advantage of the ties of kinship and family that span the Indian Ocean and are an important part of its history,” he said.

This is as far as one can get from President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” about restoring China’s greatness in the world through a sustained national rejuvenation project. The dream has created anxiety that the Asian giant would become more assertive and expansionist in order to realise it.

India’s collective and cooperative approach may require more time and harder work but it may be more successful in the long run.

This article was first published by Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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