Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the Philippines to attend the ASEAN summit has been his 70th tour abroad. He is nearing a century in international diplomacy. But, the mood is sombre. Simply put, the muscular diplomacy, packaged as “Act East”, looks increasingly foolish. Three fault lines have appeared.
China and the ASEAN have advanced their constructive engagement to a point that outsiders can no longer fish in the troubled waters of South China Sea. Symptomatic of this has been the promise by Singapore, India’s closest ASEAN ally, to organise a naval exercise with China in the South China Sea during its chairmanship of the grouping through 2018. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shied away from mentioning South China Sea at the ASEAN summit. US President Donald Trump characteristically glided over the topic. Alas, India’s ASEAN diplomacy is all dressed up, with nowhere to go. The region is hooked to developmental priorities of trade, investment, growth and job creation. But, India’s ruling elite belongs to Mars.
China has become the principal driver of growth for the ASEAN. Unsurprisingly, India’s Asian partners are seeking détente with China—especially, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea and Japan. As Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo said, “While Asian countries might value the US as a friend, no one wants China as an enemy.” Thus, India stands alone, akimbo, staring with vacant eyes at China’s “One Belt, One Road”.
Fundamentally, the US has ceded regional economic leadership to China. The “free and open Indo-Pacific” may resonate as a slogan and tickle Modi government’s vanity, but it lacks substance and is not reconcilable with Trump’s “America First” or his rejection of multilateralism and free trade.
Third, the events of the recent weeks—the party congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Trump’s Asian tour, and the ASEAN and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summits— have, one way or another, brought to the surface the precipitous decline in the US’s influence in the Asia-Pacific. Arguably, even the coinage “Indo-Pacific”, which Trump began using as he set out for Asia, and the resuscitation of the moribund quadrilateral alliance of Asian democracies have been borne out of the exigency that the US’s regional hegemony in Asia is no longer sustainable. Meanwhile, Trump’s abrasive transactional diplomacy trampled Asian sensitivities and cultural ethos. (Trump urged Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to buy US weapons systems, saying the US makes “the greatest missiles in the world.”) The APEC was cool to America First. No doubt, China lost no time to deftly capitalise on the power vacuum and project itself as the flag-carrier of globalisation and free trade.
These cataclysmic events underscored that the containment of China is no longer feasible. Harvard professor Joseph Nye had rightly predicted in 2013 that “only China can contain China”—meaning that the strategy designed for the economic isolation of the USSR and as deterrence to Soviet military expansion is not applicable today. Yet, although the US’s unipolar moment is nearing its end, China appears to be only too eager to join the existing order rather than redesign it, leave alone undermine it. The trade deals worth $250 billion signed during Trump’s “state visit-plus” to China flagged the huge common interest between the two big powers.
All in all, the spectre that is haunting India is a bipolar international system steadily accruing in the Asia-Pacific that manifests as American acquiescence with China’s unstoppable regional influence, while also tapping into China’s embrace of globalisation—a “win-win” matrix. The stunning Chinese offer to mediate Rohingya problem is a harbinger of shape of things to come. Chinese diplomacy has completely outmanoeuvred the dogmatic Modi government.
Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat.