Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi outlined his vision for the Indo-Pacific region at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Modi's speech was at times critical of China's expanding role and behavior in the region. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

It is not surprising that China’s officials, state-run media and experts reacted positively to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s keynote speech at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

Just less than a year ago, the relationship between the world’s two most populous countries was at its lowest ebb as they were locked in a military standoff over a long-running border dispute. A few months ago, it was floated that New Delhi could join the Quad, a grouping of four democratic countries that includes the United States, Japan, and Australia, to check Beijing’s regional ambition.

But things have changed. Addressing defense ministers and military officials, including US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, assembled for Asia’s premier security forum last Friday, Modi spoke relatively warmly of his country’s ties with China.

India and China relationship is multi-layered

In reviewing India’s recent external relations, he stated: “No other relationship of India has as many layers as our relations with China,” citing expanding cooperation and growing trade between the two countries and emphasizing: “Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other’s interests.” In fact, he spent more time on India’s relationship with China than its relations with other regional and global powers, including the US.

What’s more, he did not mention the Quad at all while explicitly stating that his country “does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members.” In attempting to encourage the South Asian power to play a more proactive and assertive role in the wider region, the Donald Trump administration rebranded its Asia-Pacific policy as “Indo-Pacific.”

Modi also hammered “growing protectionism” — a veiled attack on the policy currently pursued by the Trump White House. Such a criticism could be seen as a win by Beijing as it’s still locked in disputes with Washington over trade issues.

Modi also hammered “growing protectionism” — a veiled attack on the policy currently pursued by the Trump White House. Such a criticism could be seen as a win by Beijing as it’s still locked in disputes with Washington over trade issues.

Yet, a deeper look at his speech, notably the core component of his “India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific Region,” reveals Modi was not as kind to Beijing as it sounded. In fact, much of what he outlined in the six key elements that constitute New Delhi’s vision is different from — if not opposed to — China’s regional stance.

For instance, in point 2, he said: “Southeast Asia is at [the Indo-Pacific Region’s] center,” reiterating that ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) “has been and will be central to its future.” Earlier, he had already asserted: “ASEAN unity is essential for a stable future for this region,” and urged other countries to “support it, not weaken it.”

Hardly, if ever, have Chinese leaders and officials spoken so highly of the association’s centrality and unity. Worse still, as widely noted, in recent years Beijing pursued a “divide-and-rule” approach vis-à-vis the 10-member grouping.

During a meeting with his ASEAN counterparts in Vietnam in 2010, Yang Jiechi, China’s then-foreign minister and now a member of its 25-member Politburo, bluntly said: “China is a big country, and other countries are small countries — and that’s just a fact.”

Yang’s demeaning comment is often recalled by people when they talk about or illustrate Beijing’s “might-makes-right” attitude toward its smaller southern neighbors.

Rules-based order essential for the region

Regarding the third element of India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific, Modi emphasized the importance of building “a common rules-based order for the region,” adding: “Such an order must believe in sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as equality of all nations, irrespective of size and strength.”

When speaking to international audiences, such as his speech at the United Nations Office in Geneva in January 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping also strongly advocated for such a rules-based order. However, as noted, its interaction with its smaller neighbors and its actions in the disputed South China Sea tell a different story.

China vehemently rejected a legally-binding ruling by a UN Convention on the Law of the Sea arbitral tribunal that invalidated many of Beijing’s claims and actions, including its violation of the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone.

In fact, not only claimant states, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, but also many regional and global powers — including the US, Japan, Australia, France and the United Kingdom — are wary of Beijing’s expansion and militarization in the disputed area and vigorously call for an international law-based solution. China has opposed such a peaceful and legal settlement, however.

South China Sea a vital economic waterway

Geographically, the South China Sea is only one part of the vast Indo-Pacific region, but economically and geo-strategically it is a vital one to many countries, including India. In his remarks, Modi pointed out: “To the East, the Malacca Strait and South China Sea connect India to the Pacific and to most of our major partners.”

According to an estimation by the Council of Foreign Relations, a US think tank specializing in American foreign policy and international affairs, a total of US$3.37 trillion in trade passed through the South China Sea in 2016 and about 40% of global natural gas trade transited the area in 2017.

Likely being mindful of the South China Sea’s strategic importance and Beijing’s posture in the region, Modi called for “equal access as a right under international law to the use of common spaces on sea and in the air that would require freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.”

The Indian leader likewise emphasized: “When we all agree to live by that code, our sea lanes will be pathways to prosperity and corridors of peace. We will also be able to come together to . . . preserve marine ecology.”

UN tribunal critical of China’s behavior

It’s worth noting that, among other key findings against China, the UN-backed arbitral tribunal found that Beijing’s “large-scale land reclamation and construction of artificial islands at seven features in the Spratly Islands . . .  had caused severe harm to the coral reef environment and violated its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems and the habitat of depleted, threatened, or endangered species.”

The court’s five judges also found Chinese authorities “were aware that [their] fishermen have harvested endangered sea turtles, coral, and giant clams on a substantial scale in the South China Sea [using methods that inflict severe damage on the coral reef environment] and had not fulfilled their obligations to stop such activities.”

Whether intentional or not, Modi’s remarks brought to mind China’s violation of its international obligation to protect marine ecology, habitat and their endangered species.

The sixth element of Modi’s regional vision concerns connectivity. While acknowledging that “connectivity is vital” and that “there are many connectivity initiatives in the region,” he stressed that if such initiatives “have to succeed, we must not only build infrastructure, we must also build bridges of trust.”

Modi warns of impossible debt burdens

More crucially, in his view, “these initiatives must be based on respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, consultation, good governance, transparency, viability, and sustainability. They must empower nations, not place them under impossible debt burden. They must promote trade, not strategic competition.” Though he didn’t mention the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), almost every word he said in this passage was apparently aimed at Beijing’s grand infrastructure project.

For Beijing, the vast foreign investment program, billed by Xi Jinping, as the “project of the century,” is all about international connectivity, win-win cooperation and a responsible, benign and altruistic China, which is “engaged in peaceful development, determined to protect international justice and dedicated to humanitarian contributions in the world.”

But for several international observers, the trillion-dollar endeavor lacks the core criteria listed by Modi. For instance, some regard it as a strategic and self-interested tool for Beijing to extend its sphere of influence. Another, if not the most critical, problem posed by the BRI and implicitly highlighted by Modi, is that instead of empowering participating countries, the scheme puts some of them under a huge debt.

A study published in March by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Global Development identified eight BRI recipient countries — including Pakistan, Laos, Maldives, and Mongolia — that are at particular risk of debt. What’s more, according to the report, as they are unable to repay the debt they will depend on Beijing, and such economic and political overdependence will constrain their foreign policy choices.

In the last part of his address, Modi recalled “the foundation of [India’s] civilizational ethos — of pluralism, co-existence, openness and dialogue” and “the ideals of democracy that define us as a nation also shape the way we engage the world.”

India remains more closely aligned with the US

Deliberately or not, these references distinguish the world’s biggest democracy from China — an authoritarian, one-party state — and align it with the US and other regional democratic countries, such as Australia and Japan.

Thus, though New Delhi’s ties with Beijing have lately significantly improved, judging by Modi’s speech — or, more precisely, his “vision for the Indo-Pacific region” — it’s clear that India is still far closer to the US than China.

As he noted, an important pillar of India’s strategic partnership with the US is their “shared vision of an open, stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific Region.” With Beijing, it cannot share and hold such a vision, which also includes other characteristics, such as “free,” “rules-based,” “democratic,” and ASEAN-centered.

Indeed, Modi’s regional vision is similar to the Trump administration’s “vision of a safe, secure, prosperous, and free Indo-Pacific” outlined by Mattis at the 2018 SLD.

More significantly, with such a “positive” vision, while it cannot match China’s economic and military might, Modi’s India can offer something very valuable that the Indo-Pacific region, especially its small and medium-sized states, such as ASEAN members, are looking for. That’s why, as Singapore’s Minister for Defense Ng Eng Hen rightly stated, “many countries are delighted that India has indicated its firm commitment to the region.”

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Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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