Mon, Jun 04, 2018 - Page 7 News List

India’s Modi threads path between rising China, uncertain US

Narendra Modi has understood that India cannot challenge China militarily and economically, but he is also wary of Beijing’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean and seeks to leverage his position

By Marc Champion and Iain Marlow  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Yusha

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis described India as the “fulcrum’’ of security in the Indo-Pacific region as he traveled last week to an annual security conference in Singapore, attended for the first time by an Indian leader.

However, if Mattis was hoping that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would use the platform to join the US, Japan and Australia — a grouping known as the Quad — in a more muscular challenge to China’s regional expansion, he was disappointed.

Instead, India’s 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 practiced by the US, both of which were sure to satisfy Chinese delegates.

“Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other’s interests,” 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 (IISS).

He did echo US appeals for “freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law,” and he attacked governments that put other nations under “impossible burdens of debt.”

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 the past few weeks, a far cry from his groundbreaking 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 China’s rise with a more robust “act east’’ 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 “Indo-Pacific,” a change that fuels Chinese concerns about containment.

“The organizers of the Shangri-La Dialogue have been waiting for Mr Modi for a while. India is seen as the linchpin for a longer-term coalition to confront China,” said Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “Changing Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific was a means of getting Indian military capacity into the equation.”

Still, tensions between China and India later subsided, and Modi has seemingly warmed to Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).

On Friday, he reassured China that the Indo-Pacific was neither a strategy nor a club.

At the end of April, when the world’s attention was focused on a historic summit between the leaders of South and North Korea, Xi invited Modi for two days of informal talks in central China.

About the same time, reports emerged that India decided against inviting Australia to join annual naval exercises with India, Japan and the US —something Washington wanted and Beijing did not.

“Modi gave a positive assessment of China-Indian relations in his speech,” Chinese Lieutenant General He Lei (何雷), who was leading the Chinese delegation, told state-run China Central Television afterward on Friday.

Modi’s speech was constructive and reflected a strong outlook for relations between the two countries, he added.

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