SPEAKING FREELY Is there room at the dragon's table?
By Swagata Saha
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in Brazil on July 15 is going to be Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first official foreign visit, suggestive of not just his desire for a strong alliance of emerging nations but also a determination to
seek a workable partnership with China to lead the Asian century.
Unfolding geopolitical circumstances in first half of the year have opened a whole new situation for India and for India's new premier.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis, which is largely viewed as the most intense East-West conflict post Cold War, has much relevance in Asia. While the conflict has stalled Russia's relations with the United States and Europe, the signing of a US$400 billion gas deal between Russia and China has opened many Asia possibilities. "The unipolar model of the world is over," declared Russian President Vladimir Putin shortly after sealing the deal with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.
China and Russia have also completed a joint naval drill and last month promised more strategic economic cooperation in the Russia-China Business Round Table at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum. A much-debated report from the World Bank's International Comparison Program estimated that China may topple the US economy as the world's biggest this year. There has been a long-standing debate among the BRICS nations on substituting the US dollar as the standard international exchange currency, and China seems to be arguing strongly for a role there for its own currency, the yuan. Thus East-West tension and the growing proximity of Russia to Asia in general and China in particular have by default given China more room for action.
At the sidelines of the annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in May, Chinese Finance Minister Lou Jiwei at a private dinner put forward the idea of creating a $50 billion infrastructure investment bank (AIIB), mostly funded by China. India, Japan and the United States were not invited to the dinner. This was a clear exercise of Chinese economic clout at the forum of Japan-dominated ADB. Thus, countering Chinese economic might is imperative for the new government in India.
India's enduring relations with Japan are to some extent counter to Chinese might. China-Japan relations have considerably frayed over controversy surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the Chinese declaration of an air defense identification zone in 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasakuni shrine, and criticism of Japan's militaristic past and victimization of comfort women during World War II.
In September 2013, the Japan International Cooperation Agency lent an additional $696 million for the Mumbai subway, besides investments in the New Delhi metro subway and Chennai industrial corridor. In January this year, India and Japan completed a joint naval drill off the coast of Chennai.
Furthermore, the visit of Japan's Emperor and Empress in December 2013 and Shinzo Abe being the chief guest at the Indian Republic Day celebrations this year are indicative of India's deepening ties with Japan. Modi and Abe, both staunch nationalists who believe in economic wonders and also wary of China's regional ambitions, have potential for more partnerships especially keeping in view their alienation from the AIIB discussions and the prospects of Russia's growing access to Asia.
Ties with Russia, an age-old friend of India, remain, keeping in view the prospects of the nuclear power Kudankulam Project 3 and 4, which is supported by Russia. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party in its election manifesto promised to maximize the potential of nuclear energy. The new prime minister, by keeping the Department of Atomic Energy and others under his direct charge, has shown his resolve towards strong energy diplomacy. Given the West's negative view of Modi following the death of more than 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat riots when he led the local state government, he is likely to find a natural ally in Russia, considering India's energy security needs and Russia's broadening prospects in Asia. In these formations, the Russia-China gas deal appears to be a facilitator in many respects.
The ADB-funded Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Pipeline is not going to be operative in the near future. With Russian and Chinese energy interests turning to the region, the four-nations involved in TAPI may look forward to finding ways of building the pipeline through rugged and politically tense terrain and may also expect expansion of the partnership, with China and Russia joining in. These partnerships may cumulatively not just ensure reduced energy prices and heightened energy security for Asia but create a window for India to nurture deeper Central Asian ties.
India has strategic interests in partnering with China as far as a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan is concerned. In September 2013, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit, the former Indian external affairs minister Salman Khurshid called for full membership for India in the SCO. where it at present has only observer status. The SCO, which is often dubbed as the Asian North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has gained importance in view of the drawdown of Western forces in Afghanistan. Modi may cultivate India's long standing ties with Russia in part to gain membership in the organization and consolidate its stake vis-a-vis China. At the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia in Shanghai in May, the presidency passed to China, allowing the country considerable ascendancy in Asia's security scenario. These developments have made India's membership in SCO all the more pertinent.
For its part, China seems to be warming to Modi. Despite's his strong stand on border issues with China (as evident in his election campaign speech in the contested region of Arunachal Pradesh), he has been welcomed by a government Chinese think tank as "India's Nixon", not losing sight of the fact that in 2011, when chief minister of Gujarat, Modi signed a 4 billion-rupee (US$67.6 million) memorandum of understanding with a Chinese firm producing transformers.
Over the next decade, China faces having to cater for the world's largest elderly population while India has to find ways of employing the world's biggest workforce. China, being the largest exporter to the US, is well aware of the benefits of outsourcing. This perfectly complimentary situation has many possibilities as far as an India-China relationship is concerned.
While the world is hopeful of a firm foreign policy in the Modi era, the Chinese dilemma lurks in a big way. China is omnipresent in Asia. Therefore, Modi should devise ways of taking China in its stride on a workable, if not friendly, basis to make the best of the Look East Policy and to put itself on a sound footing for the Asian century.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Swagata Saha is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation and team member of the China Weekly Monitor.