Modi, ASEAN, Geopolitics And China
The message being sent by Modi to China is subtle and effective: We too can use global platforms to damage your strategic interests by raising issues that embarrass you
So American President Barack Obama had the last formal bilateral meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit. In 2017, when Modi holds a meeting with the American President, it would be either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. That might be of interest to "body language" and ideology experts. But the less hysterical pundits know that foreign policy rarely takes abrupt turns. What is of more interest is how Modi is using platforms like the G-20, BRICS and ASEAN to help India get a place in the high table of geopolitics. All foreign policy is pursuit of national interest.
What is India's national interest? While noisy TV debates focus on Pakistan, sober analysts point out that it is how India handles China in the long run that will determine how India is perceived as a power of consequence in Asia and across the world. Despite the chest beating of peaceniks, the ruling establishment of Pakistan considers India to be an "eternal" enemy. Indeed, the Pakistani military and the establishment of ruling elites it promotes would lose their "hold" over Pakistan if relations with India become normal, if not friendly. China, in contrast, is not obsessed with India the way Pakistan is. It has bigger fish to fry; in fact the biggest whale of them all names the United States of America. Policy strategists in China no longer sound polite or diplomatic when they say that the time has come for China to challenge American hegemony. To begin with, China wants to emerge as the undisputed power in Asia; the Indian Ocean and the world are expected to follow in the decades ahead. To that extent, China perceives India as a small but nevertheless significant threat to its geopolitical ambitions. No wonder, it has brilliantly used Pakistan as a de facto client state to keep India hemmed in.
But by upping the ante, Modi has changed the rules of this Great Game. By invoking Balochistan, Modi is not merely targeting the Pakistani military and its ruling establishment, as most so called pundits seem to suggest. His real target is China which is trying to effectively convert Pakistan into a colony via the China Pakistan Economic Corridor which will link the Gwadar port in Balochistan to the heartland of China via Pakistani provinces Sindh and Punjab and "illegally" occupied territories in POK, Gilgit and Baltistan. The message being sent by Modi is subtle and effective: we too can use global platforms to damage your strategic interests by raising issues that embarrass you. Not just that: repeated engagements with countries like Japan, Vietnam, Myanmar, Philippines and others which are deeply worried about the real intentions of China send another clear message of their own.
Despite what his legions of critics in Delhi say, Modi is neither taking adventurous risks with foreign policy or crafting a new one. The process of India re engaging with the world started with the late former prime minister P. V. Narasimha Rao. Modi is merely continuing it. China is not an enemy; nor is it a friend. It is a powerful country with global ambitions that India needs to manage. Hawks might dream of a day when India catches up with China in items of economic and military power. Realists know that India has already missed that bus. The best that India can do is to persuade China that blocking its rise could also have consequences for China. Perhaps Modi is doing precisely that during the ASEAN summit.