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Shangri-La Dialogue: Oh, China got the message

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Shangri-La Dialogue: Oh, China got the message

Seema Sirohi in Letter from Washington

Two major speeches this weekend at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore – one by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the other by US Defence Secretary James Mattis – did ‘the needful’ to clarify, consolidate and carry forward the idea of a free and open Indo-Pacific.

In a bit of psyops a day before the gathering, Mattis renamed the US Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command to show India’s centrality in the new order. The rechristening is more than symbolic. It stresses the link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans as one strategic space. Modi talked about the geographic area as one stretching from the “shores of Africa to that of the Americas”.

The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ surely gained more currency last weekend and should add to the focus on Chinese activities in the region, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) included, as ideas get operationalised. Beijing will no doubt claim a global conspiracy and complain how its ‘win-win’ strategy is so misunderstood. China does not like the fact that a critical mass of opinion is coalescing against its aggressive posture. Key players at Shangri-La made sure to let Beijing know what they thought of its money and muscle diplomacy.

Both Modi and Mattis gave the same message, albeit with different shades of nuance. Both promoted a rule-based international order where all nations big and small can thrive, stressed maintaining free and open seas for unhindered trade and emphasised respect for international law.

Those focused on differences forget a few fundamental truths about Indian foreign policy — India is rarely confrontational when it does big picture messaging, because India’s big picture by definition is inclusive and always delivered in the ‘world-is-one’ tone.

But Modi’s speech was also layered. It delivered multiple messages at multiple doors all nicely couched in grandiose rhetoric about peaceful co-existence and brotherly love. He did not take on China frontally, but he did plenty of subtle finger-pointing.

When he talked about countries getting buried under an “impossible debt burden,” it was Mandarin for Chinese tactics. “So, each nation must ask itself: Are its choices building a more united world, or forcing new divisions,” he said, in a fairly direct warning about China efforts to break regional groupings.

It was also an appeal to certain members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) who tend to toe China’s line, to do the right thing. In almost every key point Modi made, there was a message for Beijing. He talked of “freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law” – language that repels the Chinese.

Scepticism about India’s commitment has grown since Modi’s ‘informal’ summit with President Xi Jinping in Wuhan in late April. But the summit was an adjustment, not an alternation of essential policy. It doesn’t mean that all is well on the eastern front.

Mattis, no doubt, was more direct, as is the US tradition. “Make no mistake, America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay,” he opened. “This is our priority theater.” He called out China for saying one thing and doing another – for singing a love song, while militarising artificial features, deploying anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles, electronic jammers and landing bomber aircraft on Woody Island.

Xi’s 2015 promise in the Rose Garden not to weaponise the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea stands broken. It’s clear that China is pursuing policies of “intimidation and coercion”. But Mattis left the door open should China find real cooperation attractive.

Both Modi and Mattis also stressed the centrality of Asean as vital. Asean members should stop worrying that the idea of Indo-Pacific or the Quadrilateral grouping of India, the US, Japan and Australia is undermining their importance. Asean, for its part, should join in and support voices for a free and open order, instead of worrying on the sidelines.

India and Indonesia’s latest joint statement endorsing “a free, open, transparent, rule-based, peaceful, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region” is a great example. No adjective was left behind by the two largest Asian democracies to send the message home. Beijing can’t claim this as a US enterprise.

Modi did not specifically mention Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea and its constant battering of smaller neighbours. But it was unnecessary. There was plenty of talk about a rules-based order.

There is a saying in Hindi: to the intelligent, a mere hint is enough. As like-minded countries go forward planning their next moves, the first order of business has to be deciding what costs they can, and must, impose on rule-breakers.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.

Source: The Economic Times 


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