From May 14 to 19 this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid state visits to China, Mongolia and South Korea. This tour should be attributed to the primary regional policy events of recent times. Not least because the tour was aimed at discussion of roadblocks and outline ways to resolve them by the leaders of the two major powers of the Asian continent.
However, the significance of the latest of the many foreign trips by Modi is conditioned by a broader context, which is provided by the ‘Big Game taking place in the open spaces of the ‘extended’ Asia-Pacific region, including the area ofthe Indian Ocean. Together with China and India, the main players in the ‘Grand Maneuvers’ within the regional ‘Big Game’ are also the US and Japan.
Along with the East Asian tour by Modi, the most notable act of the ‘Grand Maneuvers’ recently was the state visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the United States. Noteworthy also were talks of Secretary of State John Kerry and the Chinese leadership, which took place in Beijing on May 16th this year, that is the last day of the visit of Modi to China.
All these acts of maneuvering are related to each other by invisible threads of logic of the regional game. The answer to the key question (‘War and Peace’) of the historical process at this stage will depends on the process of its development.
In particular, the main subject of the talks of John Kerry in China was the latest escalation of the situation in the South China Sea (SCS), signs of which occurred several months ago. In case the situation developing in the SCS advances to the stage of direct armed conflict, its participants may be at least three of the four major regional and world powers.
This is worth mentioning, as yet another attempt to reconcile the positions of the US and China over one of the most pressing reasons for the disagreements between the two seems to be ended in nothing once again.
It is difficult to say whether the subject of the SCS was discussed during the visit of Narendra Modi to China, which was a return to the visit to India in September 2014 of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Since, as a rule, not everything that high government officials say behind closed doors becomes public.
However, based on the content of the ‘Joint Statement’ adopted at the conclusion of the visit of Narendra Modi to China, the two parties seem to have done everything possible for today to outline the ways to a positive development of Sino-Indian relations.
In particular, attention is drawn to the desire to give real meaning to one of the main original tenets of the ‘Statement’ that ‘the simultaneous emergence of China and India as major powers in the region and the world in general creates favorable conditions’ for implementation of this scenario of global development, which is often referred to as the ‘Asian Century’.
The ‘Joint Statement’ does not keep away from problems in bilateral relations, too. These primarily include territorial disputes (the result of which is the continuing uncertainty over the status of the border), and Indian huge trade deficit with China.
One of the main results of the visit of Modi to China was signing 24 intergovernmental agreements for a total amount of $22 billion, which will contribute to the development of various aspects of bilateral relations. For India, China’s willingness to participate in implementation of its infrastructure projects is of particular importance.
Indian experts commenting the results of Modi’s visit to China identify ‘pitfalls’ to the successful development of Sino-Indian relations.
Firstly, it is noted that this visit was preceded by the first trip for eight years of the Chinese leader to Pakistan, made a month before the appearance of Modi in China. During Xi Jinping’s visit to Islamabad over 50 intergovernmental agreements were signed, the scope and nature of which were an unpleasant surprise for Delhi.
The first thing that should receive attention is the agreement on supply of eight Chinese submarines to Pakistan. But the main result of the visit of Xi to Islamabad is the agreement on the construction of an ‘infrastructure and energy’ corridor worth $46 billion, which will connect the western provinces of China with Pakistani port infrastructure in the area of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea coast.
This project will put an end to hopes of Delhi for the ‘return’ of the Pakistani part of Kashmir, which is often denoted in India now with the meaningful acronym PoK (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir). This corridor will pass through Pakistani Kashmir and, of course, will (if necessary) be defended with the whole Chinese power.
Secondly, the same experts formulated questions in connection with the following stop on the current tour of Modi, Mongolia, which holds a special position as ‘sandwich filling’ pressed between China and Russia.
Whereby, in spite of the attempts by the leadership of Mongolia to implement a strategy to search for a ‘third neighbor’, de facto it now comes under the growing influence of China, at least, in the economic sphere. The US is trying to counteract this trend by developing a variety of relations with Mongolia, but mainly in the field of security.
Despite the public official declarations of mutual respect for territorial integrity, in the ‘subcortex’ of a certain part of the Chinese elite the memory is kept of some circumstances of gaining independence by the present Mongolia, which happened during the period of (the next) Chinese unrest accompanied with the Xinhai Revolution of 1911-1912.
Whatever the case may be, China cannot help but be suspicious of any ‘extraneous’ activity in Mongolia. Especially on the part of one of the leading Asian powers, which is likely a political rival.
Given that the prospects, significant for India, for the development of economic relations with Mongolia – the ‘sandwich’ are hardly visible. According to some Indian experts, the visit of Narendra Modi to Ulan Bator was an attempt to answer the Chinese strategy of political strengthening in the peripheral direction of India.
The purpose of concluding 14 intergovernmental agreements and granting a loan of $1 billion to Mongolia was likely in specifying Indian political presence in one of the countries peripheral to China.
Thus, Narendra Modi fulfills his own promise to step up the ‘Look East Policy’ declared by Delhi long ago. It is noteworthy that lately the same ‘policy’ has been referred to as the ‘Act East Policy’.
Another such object of the regional ‘Great Game’ is South Korea – the endpoint of the East Asian tour of Modi. Each of the three other leading players in the Asia-Pacific region (the United States, China and Japan) has its own ‘views’ on the Republic of Korea (RoK).
In particular, Washington leaves no hope for the realization of the long-standing project to build a tripartite military-political union with the US, Japan, and the RoK. This goal was stated in the ‘Shared Vision’ – the final document adopted during the last visit of S. Abe to the US. China, of course, seeks to block the achievement of this goal by developing its own relations with South Korea.
As for India, the economic component of the visit of its Prime Minister to South Korea is clear. Unlike Mongolia, this country is one of the leading economies in the region and occupies an important place in Indian economic relations with other countries. The volume of bilateral trade stands at $16 billion, branches of 300 South Korean companies provide jobs for 40 thousand Indians.
The result of the visit of Modi to Seoul was the conclusion of seven new intergovernmental agreements, as well as promotion of bilateral relations to a strategic partnership.
Following Japan, South Korea becomes the second country with which India will hold regular meetings of Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense. This is a serious signal to designation of Indian strategic presence in East Asia.
In general, the East Asian tour of the Indian Prime Minister did not eliminate the uncertainty in answering a number of important questions. We can only say with sufficient confidence that the nature of Indian further participation in the regional ‘Big Game’ will be substantially determined by development of Sino-Indian relations.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.