Written by C Uday Bhaskar.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Manila for the 12th East Asia Summit (EAS) from November 13-14th involved a hectic schedule of bilateral and multilateral meetings, the most important of which were the ASEAN-India summit and the bilateral with Philippines. ASEAN for all its flaws uses these annual meetings in an innovative manner, providing the framework to bring together 18 leaders of the EAS as well as convening the APEC and ASEAN deliberations.
Widely known as a workaholic, the summit presented Modi with the intense one-on-one meetings that he relishes – even if the officials advising him enjoy it less so. On balance however, the outcome for India has been more than satisfactory in the political and diplomatic domain but perhaps less so in the security and trade-economic arenas.
The potentially significant politico-diplomatic gain for New Delhi will be the presence of most ASEAN leaders at the Republic Day parade in January 2018. It is understood that the 10 ASEAN leaders have accepted, in principle, the personal invite of Modi to be part of the 2018 Republic day celebrations.
The more significant advantages on the diplomatic front that have accrued to India are the introduction of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ to replace the Asia-Pacific formulation and an endorsement of this phrase by US President Donald Trump. The related strand is the revival of the ‘Quad’ initiative pushed heavily by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The idea of a new Indo-Pacific security framework that brought together Australia, Japan, the Untied States and India was mooted in mid-2007 but was buried due to a very sharp response from Beijing.
For now Quad remains an abstract grouping, however all four nations are increasing their cooperation under a naval umbrella, notably in the Indian Ocean, and this revival received greater impetus following the visit of the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to India in October. At the time he described the US-India bilateral as being the critical partnership for regional and global stability and the term Indo-Pacific was invoked to refer to the extended maritime domain.
This theme was endorsed by President Donald Trump in his East Asia visit that saw him engaging with the leaders of Japan, South Korea, China and as well as the Philippines. To the extent that the Asia-Pacific formulation excluded India and imagined an Asia dominated by China-Japan-ASEAN, the Indo-Pacific is more inclusive and elastic. It seamlessly links the two oceans and the littoral land mass that subsumes both Asia and East Africa. Predictably, Beijing has not been very enthused by this US endorsement of India as a factor of stability and is also wary of the Quad grouping and its revival via increased naval exercises.
The second diplomatic gain for India from the Modi visit is the manner in which the prime minister has been able to infuse a certain distinctive personal stamp to summit-level meetings. The media reporting following the EAS Summiy suggests that Modi was able to meet all 17 leaders in Manila, including Trump and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang.
The potentially significant diplomatic gain for New Delhi will be the presence of most if not all of the ASEAN leadership at the Republic Day parade in January 2018. It is understood that the 10 ASEAN leaders have accepted, in principle, the personal invite of Modi to be part of the 2018 Republic day celebrations, following in the tradition of President Obama and before that Shinzo Abe. In the event they all do attend, this would be a high-visible demonstration to Beijing and the wider region of India’s growing profile, as well as providing a visible demonstration of India’s Act East policy to the nations of Southeast Asia. The contrast with how ASEAN perceives China and the embedded discomfort from issues such as the South China Sea needs little reiteration.
The Modi-Trump meeting in Manila, as also that with the other two quad countries – Japan (Abe) and Australia (Turnbull) are indicative of a complex diplomatic signalling with Beijing. Each of the four nations has articulated a determination to uphold the principle of freedom of navigation and respect for international law. China has demonstrated its defiance by rejecting the claims of the concerned ASEAN nations over the South China Sea dispute; dividing them through inducement and intimidation; and conveying to the region that Beijing will now set the rules about maritime claims and interpretation of international law.
Most major powers reject this formulation – some more vociferously than others – but it is not evident that any single nation or an alliance or grouping wants to trigger a military confrontation over this matter. But the unease over the tensions between China and its littoral neighbors persists.
The Manila quad meeting was at a very junior official’s level – but it had clear political support at the highest level. In this case, Trump appears to have played his cards deftly – praising China and Xi Jinping in the bilateral but concurrently supporting the freedom of navigation and respect for law template of the quad nations.
How the quad will emerge will be determined by the resolve of China on one hand to pursue its revisionist agenda and that of the US, Japan and Australia – formal alliance members – and India, a recent strategic partner of the US, in deciding to maintain the current status quo, even if it escalates to an eyeball to eyeball situation.
But some negatives regarding the EAS Summit need to be noted. To the extent that trade is a major issue for India and the Modi-led Act-East policy, the Manila deliberations saw a 11 member Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership block forming. Discussions were held not only without the USA and China, but also India which beyond the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area is outside the TPP process entirely.
Finally the most pressing security challenge facing Southeast Asia – the Rohingya crisis – found little substantive mention among the EAS leadership present at Manila. ASEAN has abdicated from leadership on the Rohingya crisis and the SAARC nations, crippled by the India-Pakistan rivalry, do not have the bandwidth to deal with such a large-scale crisis. That the United Nations, European Union and other external actors are required to to step in reflects poorly on the both the Indo-Pacific’s institutions and the prevailing bilateral relationships.
South Asia in particular must ponder over this reality and the collective inability to meaningfully assuage the unfolding human tragedy in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
C Uday Bhaskar is a retired Commodore in the Indian Navy and currently serves at the Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi. He tweets at @theUdayB. This article was first published on the South Asia Monitor and can be found here. Image credit: by India’s Ministry of External Affairs/Flickr.