A lot like a damp squib

WE have begun to clutch at small successes to proclaim victory — a seat in the International Court of Justice or a Western rating that we aren’t quite junk economy.

A lot like a damp squib

Inching close: Despite differences, the US and China are warming up to each other.

MK Bhadrakumar

WE have begun to clutch at small successes to proclaim victory — a seat in the International Court of Justice or a Western rating that we aren’t quite junk economy. But the big picture remains very depressing. An autumnal wind has been blowing the leaves and trees look bare and withered. Three hugely consequential regional events recently exposed that Indian foreign policy us adrift — the party congress of the Chinese Communist Party, President Trump’s Asian tour and the APEC and ASEAN summits.

 There are some profound inferences to be made. The Asian power-dynamic is making a historic transition. Indian analysts blithely borrowed from Western attitudes to view the contemporary Asian scenario through the prism of the so-called “Thucydides Trap” — coined by an ingenuous American think-tanker to expound the thesis that when an established power (read US) begins to fear a rising power (read China), things escalate toward war. The Americans do not make great historians and have a habit of encapsulating broad sweeps in neat conception.

 In reality, though, the strength of Spain and Portugal gradually began to decline in the early 1800s when their colonies in Latin America rebelled. The account of British decline was not different, either. Britain’s decline can be traced to its loss of relative economic dominance since the mid-19th century — although, paradoxically, Britain continued to remain the strongest European power militarily and economically until the early 1950s. The US’ decline bears striking similarity with Britain’s in modern history. Indeed, the eclipse of the Empire is always incremental. If only we had a Sardar KM Panikkar with us today, he’d have pointed a finger at the inexorable march of history in Asia (which he’d anticipated some 60 years ago in a classic work).

 The Party Congress in Beijing proclaimed that China is no longer “rising”, but has already “risen”. It is the principal driver of growth for Asian countries today (including, ironically, the lone Anglo-Saxon outpost of Australia). 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. A terrible beauty is born. The Asian Century was Nehru’s dream. But in Manila, not too far from Bandung, it was instead the China Dream that everyone within the earshot of PM Narendra Modi was compulsively talking about. 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 idea of a quadrilateral alliance of democracies (“Quad”) for marking territory on the lamppost of regional politics. They renamed the region as Indo-Pacific. (ASEAN plainly ignored the coinage.) It’s been tragi-comical in every sense. How did this burlesque happen? Who scripted it? In a nutshell, India has lost its sense of geography and history. That’s a sad remark to make for an ancient country, but it needs to be said because there is also a grievous failure of leadership involved here. 

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.

 No sooner than Trump got back from Asian tour, one of China’s top diplomats, Ambassador Cui Tiankai, nattily attired in a bow-tie suit, told an elite Washington audience of 400 invitees drawn from the US government, business and academia at a gala banquet in his honour: “We want to build a strong partnership with the US…(which) will enable each of us to better accomplish our domestic goals…(and) put both countries together in a stronger position... This is the essence of China’s policy towards the US. This is what we actually want to have in this relationship.” Aren’t we wasting time in quixotic ventures such as the Quad? At any rate, where was this “rules-based order” when Iraq was invaded or Syria brutalised or Afghanistan subjected to war crimes, which International Criminal Court plans to investigate?

 When Trump tossed out of the window the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which was intended as the underpinning of containment strategy against China, Asian countries took note. We should have adjusted to the emergent compelling realities — like Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and South Korea did. There are signs that Japan too is trying to turn over a new leaf with China. Almost none criticised China by name at the ASEAN summit or mentioned the 2016 international ruling on the South China Sea. In fact, China and ASEAN agreed to negotiate a code of conduct. The fundamental flaw in the Modi government’s shift from “Look East” to “Act East” 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 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.

The writer is a former ambassador

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