PM’S ASEAN VISIT: EXPERT ASSESSMENT

MK Bhadrakumar, former ambassador is highly critical of India’s foreign policy and is of the opinion that it is wasting time in geo-politics rather than focussing on its national interests.

To illustrate his view, Bhadrakumar cites three hugely consequential regional events recently that exposed the drift in Indian foreign policy — the party congress of the Chinese Communist Party, President Trump’s Asian tour and the APEC and ASEAN summits.

The overarching theme of Bhadrakumar is that US as a power is giving way to China and that India, like other Asian nations and even the US, should acknowledge this fact.

“If Trump’s Asian tour has been a virtual acknowledgment that containment strategy toward China is no longer feasible, the flurry of Asian summits highlighted that the US’ continuing pre-eminence as the global military power is all but becoming irrelevant to the ASEAN region, where although military power still matters, economics has taken centre stage and infrastructure has become a more important tool for accumulating power as well as exercising it.

“All this leaves India in a quandary……The PM’s aides scheduled some meetings for him in Manila, but, largely, the impression accrued that the India which he represented has become somewhat peripheral to the animated discourses. We lurked in the shade furtively watching, holding uncertainly the can of “Act East” — for which there are no serious takers in Southeast Asia anymore.”

As a sideshow, the Indian officials huddled together with their colleagues from the US, Japan and Australia to explore whether to revive the moribund. Bhadrakumar calls the idea of a quadrilateral alliance of democracies (“Quad”) irrelevant as is the renaming of the region as Indo-Pacific.

“Our present foreign policy elite hijacked the national interests. Geography dictates that India belongs to its region but India’s relations with China, the towering presence on Asia’s strategic landscape, nosedived during PM Modi’s watch. We barked up the wrong tree, losing precious time, crying hoarse over issues that belong to the domain of rhetoric — Masood Azhar, NSG membership, Dalai Lama, CPEC, et al. The business deals worth a staggering $250 billion agreed during Trump’s recent visit to China would create tens of thousands of new jobs in America. They not only added a new dimension to America First, but considering the very nature of the infrastructure projects on the anvil, also herald in the near term perspective the unannounced arrival of the OBOR in North America.”

The fundamental flaw in the Modi government’s shift from “Look East” to “Act East” writes Bhadrakumar “is that it was heavily laden with geopolitics, whereas, the Asian region as a whole — and Southeast Asian countries in particular — feel the pressure of public accountability and are focused on growth and developmental issues of trade, investment and infrastructure.”

India’s integration with Asia-Pacific, concludes Bhadrakumar “faces serious challenges from the perspective of geo-economics. The RCEP negotiations are symptomatic of this. A leap of faith is needed. India should have the will to surrender parts of its sovereignty to regional processes, and the public opinion should be willing to support greater integration. Our predicament vis-à-vis the OBOR highlights a larger malaise. Scepticism about the benefits of the global supply chain is very high in India. Great wealth flows to the powers that dominate trade.”

Maritime security to become strategically crucial

G Parthasarathy, former secretary, MEA however makes a different view. He considers Prime Minister Modi’s inviting his ASEAN hosts for a summit-level get-together in Delhi on Republic Day 2018 as “timely as ASEAN itself is undergoing strains and differences on how to deal with a growingly assertive China, which is providing ASEAN members with huge opportunities for investment and trade. This, at a time, when Trump, with his emphasis on “America First” policies, withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, throwing prospects for meaningful increases in economic cooperation and integration with ASEAN to the winds, while opening the doors for a China-centric order in the region.”

Parthasarathy also sees value in the four-party meeting among India, Japan, Australia and the US to develop a new basis for maritime and regional economic cooperation, across the Indo-Pacific Region. It was “clear that the four countries shared identical, or similar views, on issues like connectivity, respect for international conventions, maritime security and freedom of navigation and regional connectivity. There was clearly a desire to move ahead collectively in balancing Chinese assertiveness …”

Maritime security, according to Parthasarathy “is set to become a crucial issue affecting our strategic perceptions in coming years. With a full-fledged military base in Djibouti, the virtual control of Gwadar, where Pakistan has abdicated even pretences of having sovereign control, a significant stake in Hambantota and a growing economic presence in the port of Kyaukpyu, which it is developing in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, China is set to develop what was years ago described as a “string of pearls” across the Indian Ocean.”

But, at the same time, there are growing voices of dissent in a number of countries including in Pakistan “which are discovering that China’s much-touted OBOR project is really meant to use China’s surplus construction and infrastructure capacities to promote Beijing’s geopolitical ambitions by setting terms which force recipients to increasingly hand over crucial sectors of their economy and territory to Chinese control.”

It is for India to take advantage of the opportunities that new geo-political situations may present.