India: The Emerging Power

By K.N. Pandita

President Obama as guest of honour at the 66th Republic Day parade on January 26 in New Delhi has created ripples in regional politics. China and Pakistan are irritated, of course essentially for different reasons.

Obama’s Indian itinerary did not include visit to Pakistan. Islamabad considers it barefaced tilt in US’ long-pursued parity politics in the subcontinent. Days before the visit, Nawaz Sharif told him in a telephonic conversation to pursue Indians to resume bilateral talks. Strangely, this contradicts what Nawaz Sharif’s foreign adviser Sartaj Aziz had said to the visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry earlier.

It cannot be a coincidence that, while Obama and Modi were entwined in a bear hug, Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, was on a high-profile official visit to Beijing. The chief’s message was clear: “There’s another superpower out there. If the West doesn’t like us, we can always look east.”

Pakistan’s media was full of headlines. Citing a top Chinese official, it described Pakistan as an “irreplaceable all-weather friend.” Note the “all-weather”.

Qasim Naumani blogged for the Wall Street Journal saying that Pakistani government used sharp words as President Obama concluded his three-day trip to neighbouring India, and issued a statement saying it had “taken careful note of statements made and agreements reached” in New Delhi.

Normally, China does not publicly react to exchange of visits of top dignitaries among neighbouring countries. But in the case of Obama, Chinese official spokesperson has reacted somewhat contemptuously. He said that too much should not be read between the lines. Obviously, China has given vent to its discomfiture. “Caesar hates flattery being flattered most,” says the bard of Stratford-on-Avon. This generates interesting debate on new leaf in Sino-Indian relations in the context of current political scenario.

Modi-Obama bonhomie, their calling each other by first name and tete-a-tete on the lawns of Hyderabad House over a cup of tea —– poured by Modi himself—- is taken as deviation from recognized protocol. All this is neither unique nor should it be disquieting for Beijing. After all, a visiting dignitary of such status and importance will oblige the host. There is the element of courtesy apart from protocol. Obama is not strictly conventional in his demeanor.

Sensing that Beijing was somewhat uneasy over his warming up to Indians, Obama said that China need not entertain any apprehensions of disturbing balance of power in the Asian region. At the bottom of Chinese irritation lies the breakthrough in Indo-US nuclear stalemate. Under the nuclear rubric, the Indo-US nuclear group interacting in London, was discussing administrative arrangements, how to actualize India’s quest for membership of Nuclear Supplier’s Group and also issues related to clarification and understanding of our nuclear liability regime. This is no mean an achievement of Modi government.

By raising an “irreplaceable all weather friend” in the sensitive South Asia, Beijing has unwittingly made space for great power rivalry in the region with Russia, US, Japan and India set to counter it.

While Russia has agreed to provide India with 12 nuclear reactors besides some defence related facilities, Moscow will welcome peace initiatives in Central Asian and Af-Pak region essentially by putting an end to raging terrorism. Russia is committed to countering terrorism via her membership of Shanghai Co-operation Organization.

As for the US, she has unrolled her two-pronged strategy of India-Pacific outreach, and the New Silk Road. The latter is primarily to open Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics to the booming markets of South and South East Asia in post-withdrawal period in Afghanistan. Washington thinks that for historical, cultural and geographical reasons Central Asian-Afghan exposure to South and South East Asia will be more rewarding than its linkage to European Continent.

In both strategies US considers India of significant importance. This importance was summed up by Obama in one word while interacting with a correspondent. He said it was “democracy” in India that made the difference. The US is perusing democratic anchorage in Central Asia and Afghanistan as she prepares to leave war-torn Afghan region. This gives India leverage while trade route from Central to South and South East Asia would counter Chinese ambition of reviving the historic Silk Road across Eurasia to Europe. There are no two opinions that India makes great impact on political structuring now in place in the Asian Continent.

Indo-US bilateral strategic cooperation, defence deals, expanded trade and US support to Modi’ new 100 smart cities are outside the purview of this study.

As for Japan, PM Modi has struck personal rapport with Prime Minister Abe of Japan. Zachary wrote in The National Interests,” New Delhi’s Projet-75-India to acquire six advanced diesel-electric submarines will be worth more than Rs. 50,000 crore ($ 8 billion) and likely much more. France’s DCNS, Germany’s HDW, Russia’s Rosoboronexport and Span’s Navantia are all expected to compete for the contract. Since the submarines will be built in India foreign companies that wish to compete for the contract are expected to form a joint venture with an Indian shipyard.”

India is crucial to both Russia and the US in checkmating Beijing in the Asian continent. The Washington Post put the story in right perspective saying, “In December, Modi reached a deal for 12 more new Russian reactors, and in September secured access to Australian uranium. He was unable, however, to reach an agreement last year with Japan, a US ally with decades of nuclear energy expertise,”

Notably, the nuclear reactors deal with Moscow was not an impediment in Modi- Obama breakthrough in the nuclear deal stalemate.

Yet one more and undoubtedly very significant development in the Asian strategic arena is Prime Minister Modi’s forthright policy towards China. He told visiting Chinese President Xi that border issue should be resolved permanently. He also demanded rationalizing of balance of trade.

Undoubtedly, there is realization with the Chinese leadership that change of guard in New Delhi implies that China should be more pragmatic in dealing with its rival in the Asian Continent. The change is visible in two aspects. One is that China has agreed to conduct silent but result-oriented talks with India on border resolution issue. The second aspect is of Beijing allowing Indian pilgrims to use the Sikkim route for pilgrimage to Mansarovar and Kailash. Rationalizing bilateral trade is also in the pipeline.

But we are now better conversant with ‘blow hot blow cold’ tactics of Chinese leadership. Until any just and viable deal is sealed, we need not make a show of exuberance. Incidentally at this point we cannot avoid mentioning a small incident though largely unnoticed, that speaks the heart of China.

During his recent visit to Delhi, the Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida spoke about what Beijing calls “a Chinese territorial area adjacent to India as Indian Territory.” According to The China Daily, the Japanese diplomat was referring to Arunachal Pradesh

Beijing immediately lodged a strong protest: “We hope Japan fully understands the sensitivity of the China-India boundary question,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, who added that in his speech in New Delhi, “Kishida attracted media attention after referring to a southern area of China’s Tibet Autonomous Region as Indian Territory. Beijing has taken notice of the report, expressed serious concerns, demanded Japan make a clarification and immediately manage damage control.”

Lastly, more can be read between the lines in regard to Indian External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj’s four-day visit to Beijing as preparatory to the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Beijing schedule for May this year. Chinese President Xi broke the tradition and gave her audience. She stated that Sino-Indian talks on resolution of border issue were progressing and both sides desired normalization of relations. This has been the rhetoric for decades at end but the fact remains that hopefully Beijing understands the compulsions of change of stance in South Asian region.
*The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies at Kashmir University, India.

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