Why China doesn't trust Modi

Beijing has cautioned India about meddling into its affairs in Vietnam.

 |  4-minute read |   06-11-2014
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Prime Minister Modi is embarking on an extended visit through Myanmar, Australia and Fiji over the next week and this 10-day trip will be his longest foreign tour to date.

Two major summit level meetings – the 9th East Asia Summit in Naypidaw, Myanmar (Nov 11-12 ) and the G–20 summit in Brisbane, Australia (Nov 15-16) will accord Modi an opportunity to meet his peers at a time when the global mood is bleak and anxiety-ridden over a range of political, security-strategic and economic issues. The more extreme view is that the global system of governance led by the US has broken down and that any form of alternate formulation is elusive.

Many challenges confront the political leaders who will be attending these two summits and the sub-text will be the rise of China and the arrival of India – and how this is perceived by the other major powers, namely the US, Russia, Japan and the ASEAN collective. The first East Asia Summit (EAS) was held in December 2005 in Kuala Lumpur and was seen as a Malaysian initiative, tacitly supported by China to forge a distinctive East Asian identity and agenda.

Assertiveness

At the time Malaysia and China were not enthused about including Delhi in the EAS but Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore supported India’s admittance. Thus the first EAS meeting had 16 nations that included the core ASEAN 10 plus 3 (China, Japan & South Korea) plus 3. Subsequently, both the US and Russia were admitted at the 6th summit in 2011 and currently the EAS has 18 members. In terms of global groupings with an east Asian footprint, the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation - of which India is not a member) is the other major forum and a complex lattice of trade arrangements have come into existence over the last decade.

The economic and trade profile associated with China is the reality that the EAS has to contend with and the stark indicator is that by 2025 — a decade from now, if not sooner — China is poised to become the world’s number one economy when its GDP is expected to overtake that of the USA. Yet the rise of China accompanied by its assertiveness – as evidenced in its maritime/island disputes with Japan, Philippines and Vietnam have caused anxiety in the region and beyond.

One of the reasons why India was admitted into the EAS grouping in 2005 was to counter the influence of China – which can be very demanding, as ASEAN learnt at the summit held in Cambodia in 2012. China’s inflexible position over the maritime disputes and its ability to drive a wedge between the South-East Asian members led to an unprecedented situation for ASEAN, in 2012, where for the first time the collective was unable to arrive at a consensus and issue a joint summit communiqué.

The economic and military muscle that China brings to the table is contrasted by the more acceptable traits that India now brings to the EAS. The assumption of office by PM Modi and his foreign policy orientation — especially in relation to China will be the focus of the Naypidaw deliberations. It may be recalled in his first visit to Japan, PM Modi was able to strike anrelationship with his counterpart Shinzo Abe and the reference to "vistarvaad" – expansionist policies left little doubt about the identity of the nation being referred to. Along with Japan, in ASEAN the country that has the most strained relationship with China is Vietnam and here again the PM has embarked upon a robust engagement agenda with Hanoi.

From September to now — India has held three major bilateral political meetings; the visit of President Mukherjee and later Foreign Minister Swaraj to Vietnam; and the more recent visit of Vietnam PM Nguyen Tan Dung to Delhi.

Ambivalence

India was admitted into the EAS during the early phase of the UPA tenure, but over the last few years, many ASEAN leaders conveyed their disappointment at Delhi’s ambivalence and hesitation to take any kind of assertive position in relation to China. This prudence was not misplaced given India’s unresolved issues with China.

However PM Modi has now signalled India’s resolve to engage with nations like Vietnam and to go beyond hydrocarbon exploration and the joint statement is instructive. It expressed "satisfaction at the progress made in defence cooperation" and expressed hope that this will continue to be strengthened.

Meddling

Apart from military training and supplying naval vessels, the scope of the cooperation acquired a strategic sheen with specific reference to cooperation in space applications such as the launch of Vietnam's satellites and in the peaceful use of civil nuclear energy. Beijing’s response has been caustic and has cautioned India against "meddling" in its dispute with Vietnam and has opposed Hanoi’s decision to invite India to conduct oil exploration in the South China Sea.

In the event that India decides to supply the Brahmos cruise missile to Vietnam – then a line would be crossed in the India-China relationship. The presence of Chinese naval platforms in Sri Lanka and India’s discomfiture at this development is part of the complex signalling that is under way and the EAS deliberations in Myanmar may test PM Modi’s summit-level politico-diplomatic acumen in an unexpected manner.

Writer

C Uday Bhaskar C Uday Bhaskar @theudayb

The writer is Director, Society for Policy Studies.

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