“A rapidly developing India and the Association of South East Asian Nations can be great partners for each other,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi Wednesday told leaders of the 10-nation Asean in Myanmar. “We are both keen to enhance our cooperation in advancing balance, peace and stability in the region.”
The Prime Minister’s words departed dramatically from New Delhi’s traditional posture on its own aspirations.
New Delhi — both under Manmohan Singh and till now under Modi — has so far publicly rejected suggestions that it has any intention of checking China’s growing strategic heft, alone or in concert with the US, Japan, Australia and South East Asian nations critical of Beijing.
Modi and his predecessor Singh, the two Indian Prime Ministers whose terms have coincided with China’s increasing muscularity in East Asia, have frequently referred to the rising tensions in the region, and have asked all nations to exercise restraint. Modi’s use of “peace and stability” is in keeping with that approach.
India has also quietly enjoyed gains earned because of the tensions in East Asia, as nations that once depended economically on China look for other investment destinations.
But never has India publicly referred to any desire to ensure "balance" in the region, aware that the word fits in with attempts by the US and Japan in particular to build a coalition countering the growth of China, the only power in the Asia Pacific that is altering traditional power equations.
Instead, Singh on two occasions argued that there was enough opportunity for both India and China to grow.
"I have said on several occasions that India welcomes China's emergence," Singh said last year on a visit to Beijing. "Frankly, old theories of alliances and containment are no longer relevant. India and China cannot be contained and our recent history is testimony to this. Nor should we seek to contain others."
It is unclear whether Modi's address — he is known for impromptu improvisations — represents a shift in how India will now publicly articulate its interests in the Asia Pacific region.
But even if Modi's address merely captures his thoughts on New Delhi's role in a troubled part of the world, his use of the word will likely re-affirm fears of many in the Chinese establishment that India may take on a proactive role in balancing Beijing's rise.
Asked by The Telegraph about the Prime Minister's use of the word "balance," foreign office spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin did not mention China, but referred indirectly to the desire of Asean nations to look towards India and the West as counters to China's dominance.
"This is about the centrality of the Asean, in our view, to every element of this region's architecture — economic, political and security related," Akbaruddin said. "This is about our Look East policy converging with their Look West approach. And we welcome it."
Modi did not mention China specifically either, in his remarks — in Hindi — at the start of a 45-minute summit with the East Asian nations that as a bloc are among India's fastest growing economic partners. His original Hindi address was not made available — only an English translation that uses the word "balance" was released.
But several of the Asean nations did articulate their concerns over rising tensions with China on overlapping claims over patches of sea rich in oil and natural gas, and dotted by strategically located reefs and islands, Akbaruddin acknowledged.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Thailand within the Asean, and East Asian powerhouses South Korea and Japan are all locked in disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
Those concerns prompted Modi to respond, after the Asean leaders had spoken, Akbaruddin said.
"We all have the responsibility that we all follow international law and norms on maritime issues, as we do in the realm of air passage. In future, we will also need this in space," Modi said. "For peace and stability in South China Sea, everyone should follow international norms and law."
- The Telegraph, Calcutta