NEW DELHI: In what was probably his last major foreign policy speech before the 2019 general elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi outlined India’s position for the world’s military and strategic leadership at the Shangri La security dialogue in Singapore on June 1.
No doubt there will be other platforms and forums like the BRICS summit in July in Johannesburg and the UN General Assembly in New York in September, but for now, this speech was an attempt to articulate India’s position clearly to the world without offending two major suitors for New Delhi’s attention and support, the US and China.
The fact that both US defence secretary James Mattis and Lieutenant-General He Li, deputy head of the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Sciences, who led the Chinese delegation at the dialogue publicly praised the speech is a sign that he succeeded.
However, it is important to understand the subtext of the speech, said a senior Indian official. For one, while emphasising the long-standing centrality of Southeast Asia in India’s foreign policy, the speech made it clear that India was not going to indulge in Freedom of Navigation operations in the South China Sea just yet like the US -- and now the French and the British -- warships are indulging in. It also made clear that while India and China were trying to find common ground at the highest level, India would not endorse Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, a part of which clearly violates India’s sovereignty.
But that will not stop New Delhi from seeking greater engagement with both nations on common issues like trade and terror. “It’s a delicate balancing act in a crumbling global system,” the official said. “New Delhi knows that it cannot wish away irritants like the border issue with China as well as its intransigence over India’s admission to the NSG, among other things. And there will be a clash of interests over access to the South China Sea, particularly near Vietnam, where we have oil and other interests.”
Similarly, no one quite knows what US President Donald Trump will do next. “Despite his apparent love and support for Prime Minister Modi and the aggressive lobbying to sell more weapons to India, there are clear differences over Russia and Syria, as well as Iran. US sanctions on those nations hurt Indian interests. Besides, there is a strong lobby in South Block that argues that Washington has proven time and again that it is just a fair-weather friend,” he said.
So the main take-away from the speech is that India will continue to oppose the BRI, but not toe the aggressive US line on the South China Sea while reiterating its economic and strategic interests in the region. But these inherent contradictions will cause friction some day, and when they do, there will be calls from both sides for Delhi to stand up and be counted. That is when the real test will come in. For now, both Beijing, New Delhi and, perhaps, Washington have just bought themselves some time.