Southeast Asia: Changing Geo-Political Dynamics in the Trump Era


August 30, 2018

Southeast Asia: Changing Geo-Political Dynamics in the Trump Era

Widespread reports of China’s hegemony over the neighboring region miss the nuance of fast-shifting political and strategic dynamics

Phnom Penh 
A historical map depicting China's flag over Southeast Asia. Photo: iStock

Is China truly establishing dominance over neighboring Southeast Asia, or is it a prevailing perception among academics and journalists who have uncritically adopted a pervasive pro-China narrative built on Beijing’s rising investment and influence in the region?

Two recent Southeast Asian elections denote a shifting spectrum. Last month’s general election in Cambodia, by far China’s most loyal ally in the region, was taken by some as indication of how far the country has moved away from its past Western backers and closer to Beijing.

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As Cambodia abandons multi-party democracy for one-party authoritarianism, similar to the dominance of the Communist Party in China, some see Cambodia as the first domino to fall in China’s grand regional ambition for political and economic control over the nearby region.

Indeed, some in Cambodia’s exiled opposition have claimed that the country has become a de facto “Chinese colony” under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The Harapan coalition’s win at Malaysia’s May 9 general election, however, pointed in the opposite direction. The long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was ousted by an alliance whose campaign narrative was built in part on opposing Chinese investment, which boomed under the previous government.

Now as prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad has cancelled US$22 billion worth of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, including a Belt and Road Initiative-inspired high-speed rail line, for reasons of fiscal prudence.

While Mahathir warned of the risk of new forms of “colonialism” during a recently concluded tour of China, he also made the diplomatic point that his government isn’t anti-China.

Indeed, some in Cambodia’s exiled opposition have claimed that the country has become a de facto “Chinese colony” under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The Harapan coalition’s win at Malaysia’s May 9 general election, however, pointed in the opposite direction. The long-ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) was ousted by an alliance whose campaign narrative was built in part on opposing Chinese investment, which boomed under the previous government.

Now as Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad has cancelled US$22 billion worth of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects, including a Belt and Road Initiative-inspired high-speed rail line, for reasons of fiscal prudence.

While Mahathir warned of the risk of new forms of “colonialism” during a recently concluded tour of China, he also made the diplomatic point that his government isn’t anti-China.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (L) and China's Premier Li Keqiang talk during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 20, 2018.Mahathir is on a visit to China from August 17 to 21. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / HOW HWEE YOUNG

“We should always remember that the level of development of countries are not all the same,” Mahathir said this week at a joint press conference with Chinese premier Li Keqiang. “We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries, therefore we need fair trade.”

It is undeniable that China now plays a major and growing role in Southeast Asian affairs, even if judged by only its economic heft.

A recent New York Times report noted that every Asian country now trades more with China than the United States, often by a factor of two to one, an imbalance that is only growing as China’s economic growth outpaces that of America’s.

With China’s economic ascendency projected to continue – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicts China could become the world’s largest economy by 2030 – some believe that Beijing aims to replace the US-backed liberal international order in place since the 1950’s with a new less liberal and less orderly model.

Cambodia’s case, however, tests the limits of that forward-looking analysis. The US and European Union (EU) refused to send electoral monitors to Cambodia’s general election last month on the grounds the process was “illegitimate” due to the court-ordered dissolution of the country’s largest opposition party.

Washington has since imposed targeted sanctions on Cambodian officials seen as leading the anti-democratic crackdown, while new legislation now before the US Senate could significantly ramp up the punitive measures.

Hun Sen aired a combative response to threats of sanctions, saying with bravado that he “welcomes” the measures. Some commentators read this as an indication that Phnom Penh no longer cares about the actions and perceptions of democratic nations because it has China’s strong and lucrative backing.

Yet the CPP still made painstaking efforts to present a veneer of democratic legitimacy on to its rigged elections, something it would not have done if it only cared about Beijing’s opinions. Hun Sen now says he will soon defend the election’s legitimacy at the United Nations General Assembly, yet another indication that he still cares what the West thinks.

China’s rise in Southeast Asia is viewed primarily in relation to the US’ long-standing strong position, both economically and strategically. Many see this competition as a zero-sum game where China’s gain is America’s loss.

Along those lines, some analysts saw US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent whirlwind trip to Southeast Asia as “parachute diplomacy” that only underscored certain entrenched regional perceptions of the US as an episodic actor that has no real strategy for Southeast Asia.

The Donald Trump administration certainly lacks an overarching policy comparable to his predecessor Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” a much-vaunted scheme with strategic and economic components that made Southeast Asia key to America’s policy of counterbalancing China.

Despite no new policy moniker, Trump’s administration has in many ways continued Obama’s scheme: Vietnam remains a key ally, support for other South China Sea claimants is unbending, military sales remain high, and containing Chinese expansion is still the raison d’etre.

It’s also been seen in the number of visits to Southeast Asia by senior White House officials, including high profile tours by Pompeo and his predecessor Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Trump himself to Vietnam in November 2017 and Singapore in June.

A little noticed December 2017 National Security Strategy document, produced by Trump’s White House, explicitly notes that “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor.”

Yet perceptions of new Cold War-like competition in Southeast Asia often fail to note the imbalance between America and China’s spheres of influence in the region.

 

US President Donald Trump (L) and Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang (R) attend a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi in Hanoi on November 12, 2017.Trump told his Vietnamese counterpart on November 12 he is ready to help resolve the dispute in the resource-rich South China Sea, which Beijing claims most of. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / KHAM

Absent President Donald Trump’s Asia Policy, China emerges as the dominant  player in Southeast Asia

China’s two most loyal regional allies are arguably Cambodia and Laos, countries of less economic and strategic importance than America’s main partners Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.

The historically pro-US Philippines has gravitated somewhat into China’s orbit under President Rodrigo Duterte, though at most there has been an equalization of its relations between the two powers rather than outright domination by China.

Strategic analyst Richard Javad Heydarian recently noted that Duterte likes to think of himself as a “reincarnation of mid-20th century titans of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement,” though Heydarian suggested that this could prompt a backlash from the Philippine public that remains resolutely pro-America.

Malaysia, another country that was thought to have been moving closer to China, has ricocheted strongly in the other direction after the change in leadership from pro-China Najib Razak to China-skeptic Mahathir Mohamad.

Thailand has boosted military ties with Beijing since the country’s military coup in 2014, which caused some panic in Washington, but a recent incident has shown just how fragile their bilateral relations remain.

After two boats sank near the resort island of Phuket in early July, killing dozens of Chinese tourists, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan blamed the Chinese tour operators, commenting the accident was “entirely Chinese harming Chinese.”

His claim led to calls in China for tourists to boycott Thailand, which could cost the country roughly US$1.5 billion in cancellations, according to some estimates. Thailand’s tourism sector is now facing a major public relations problem after China’s jingoist state-owned media lambasted Prawit’s tactless response.

More explosively, rare nationwide protests in Vietnam in June were sparked by nationalistic concerns that a new law allowing 99-year land leases in special economic zones would effectively sell sovereign territory to China.

There are strong perceptions, aired widely over social media, that Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party is too close to Beijing, a cause of resentment that some analysts suggest is the country’s biggest potential source of instability.

Even in perceived pro-China nations like Cambodia and Laos, anti-China sentiment is rising in certain sections of the public. Arguments that Chinese investment actually harms the livelihoods of many Cambodians, especially in places like coastal Sihanoukville and Koh Kong, is on the ascendency.

Social media criticism has centered on a concession deal the Cambodian government entered with a Chinese company that effectively gives it land rights to an estimated 20% of Cambodia’s coastline.

The same goes for Laos’ ruling communist party, which has taken steps to curb the growth of certain sectors dominated by Chinese investment, such as banana plantations and mining, over public complaints about their adverse health and environmental impacts.

The IMF and others, meanwhile, have expressed concerns that Laos risks falling into a Chinese “debt trap”via its Beijing-backed US$6 billion high-speed rail project, a claim that Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith felt the need to publicly rebuff in June.

Still, there is a certain misapprehension that China’s rising economic importance to the region, both as a provider of aid and investment and market for exports, necessarily equates to strong political and strategic influence.

It doesn’t always add up that way. In January, China fractionally overtook America as the largest importer of Vietnamese goods, according to the General Department of Vietnam Customs. Nonetheless, Hanoi remains decidedly pro-US in regional affairs and that position isn’t expected to change, even if its exports to China continue to outpace those to America.

More fundamentally, China’s rising economic presence in the region is in many instances destabilizing relations. Rapid growth in Chinese investment to Malaysia in recent years prompted a public backlash, a phenomena seized on by the victorious Harapan coalition. There are incipient signs the same type of backlash is now percolating in Cambodia and Laos.

Chinese investment is likely to play a role in Indonesia’s presidential and legislative elections next year, perhaps negatively for incumbent President Joko Widodo, under whose tenure China has become the country’s third largest investor.

“The relationship with China could turn toxic for [Widodo],” Keith Loveard, senior analyst with Jakarta-based business risk firm Concord Consulting, recently told the South China Morning Post.

To be sure, China has translated some of its economic largesse to strategic advantage. Philippine President Durterte, for example, said in October 2016 that his country’s one-way security ties with the US would come to an end, though America’s provision of “technical assistance” during the Marawi City siege last year cast the extent of that into doubt.

China has also developed closer ties to the militaries of Thailand and Cambodia, so much so that the latter cancelled joint military exercises with the US last year. It has also resumed its past position of shielding Myanmar’s generals from Western condemnation during the recent Rohingya refugee crisis.

But America still remains the predominant security ally of most Southeast Asian nations, something that will only become more important as concerns about the spread of Islamic terrorism heighten. This month, Washington provided an additional US$300m in security funding to the region.

Only Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar buy more arms from China than America, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The rest of Southeast Asia’s military procurements, sometimes exclusively, come from the US.

Still, some of China’s recent regional successes have been the result of America’s missteps. China has been greatly helped by Trump’s withdrawal of America from its long-standing leadership role in certain multilateral institutions, as well as his ad hoc policy towards Southeast Asia that favors more bilateralism.

Had Trump not withdrawn the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral trade deal championed by Obama that excludes China, regional trade flows would be geared more towards America, providing an important counterbalance to many regional countries’ rising dependence on Chinese markets.

By doing so, Trump allowed Beijing’s multilateral economic institutions, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank, to gain an upper hand.

Yet most reporting on China’s influence in Southeast Asia rests on the assumption that the trends of the past decade will continue into the future. But it’s not clear that Chinese investment will keep growing at the same rate – or even faster – while America continues to fumble over how best to engage with Southeast Asia.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C) poses with Thailand's Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai (L), Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (2nd L), Malaysia's Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah (2nd R) and Laos Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith (R) for a group photo at the 51st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - US Ministerial Meeting in Singapore on August 3, 2018. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

China cannot rule out that in 2021 America could have a new president able to articulate and implement a more coherent policy towards Southeast Asia, nor that upcoming elections in Indonesia and possibly even Myanmar see the rise of anti-China candidates.

Neither can Beijing rule out that India won’t become a major player in the region, despite it so far failing to live up to expectations. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think tank, asserted that it can be “a more forceful counterweight to China and hedge against a declining United States.”

Moreover, there is great uncertainty over whether the South China Sea disputes pitting China versus the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, among others, might at some point turn hot, which would significantly alter the region’s security approach in place since the 1990s.

China’s growing trade war with the US could also impact on its relations with the region. Some believe China could soon devalue its currency in response to the US-China trade war, though Beijing says it won’t.

Not only would a devalued renminbi make Chinese-made products cheaper, negatively affecting competing Southeast Asian exporters, it would also affect the region’s supply chains as Chinese buyers would be expected to demand cheaper prices. Few, if any, in the region would win from rounds of competitive currency devaluations.

But viewing China’s power in the region vis-a-vis America’s is only part of the picture. Japan, and to a lesser extent South Korea, are also major players and potential counterweights to China.

Since the 2000s, Japan’s infrastructure investment in the region has been worth US$230 billion, while China’s was about US$155 billion, according to recent BMI Research, an economic research outfit. The balance might tip in China’s favor with the US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, but probably not for another decade or so, BMI projects.

Tokyo rarely boasts of its own soft power in Southeast Asia. Indeed, while Philippine leader Duterte’s overtures to China are among his major talking points, quietly it has been Japan, not China, that is funding his government’s ballyhooed major infrastructure programs.

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) and Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad shake hands during joint press remarks at Abe's official residence in Tokyo on June 12, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Toshifumi KITAMURA

Japanese diplomacy towards the region falls somewhere between China and America’s. While Washington’s, at least past, insistence on human rights and democracy-building puts off to many regional countries, Beijing’s diplomacy is more laissez faire, as long as Chinese interests are protected by sitting governments.

Tokyo, by contrast, tends to practice quiet sustained diplomacy, decidedly in support of rule of law but without the threat of punitive measures if a partner government strays. That is likely one reason why there is little anti-Japan sentiment in the region and why its relations receive much less public attention.

Malaysia’s Mahathir, whose first trip abroad after May’s election win was to Tokyo, not Beijing or Washington, has recently spoken of Japan’s importance in regional affairs.

Mahathir shaped Southeast Asia’s approach to great powers during his previous tenure as Prime Minister from 1981-2003, and his belief that Japan can play an even larger role in regional affairs could soon be taken up by other regional governments.

“Specific Southeast Asian states are now seeking to diversify their strategic partnerships, beyond a binary choice between Beijing and Washington,” reads a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mahathir’s apparent desire is for a more diversified regional network, similar to the hedging policies he promoted in the 1990s. Mahathir is certainly not pro-China, but neither is he pro-US.

What most Southeast Asian nations desire is not unipolarity but competition among many foreign partners that allows them to maximize benefits and negotiating leverage. When America and China, or Japan and India, compete to gain an economic and political footing, regional nations often win through the bidding.

 

 

Australia-US convergence on the “Indo-Pacific”: AUSMIN 2018


August 30, 2018

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Asia Pacific Bulletin No. 438

Australia-US convergence on the “Indo-Pacific”: AUSMIN 2018

by Dr. David Scott

Dr. David Scott explains that “The Joint Declaration represents the convergence between Australia’s espousal of Indo-Pacific frameworks first seen in its 2013 Defense White Paper, and American espousal of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” frameworks in the Trump administration since autumn 2017.”

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis hosted Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and Minister for Defence Marise Payne on July 23-24 for the annual Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, California. Holding the meeting in the San Francisco Bay Area, on the U.S. Pacific coast and near the birthplace of the ANZUS Treaty

The AUSMIN meeting held last month brought together the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis with the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and Minister for Defense Marise Payne. Its Indo-Pacific focus was unmistakable. Whereas the 2017 AUSMIN Joint Declaration mentioned the “Indo-Pacific” but once and for the first time at AUSMIN, the 2018 Joint Declaration mentioned the “Indo-Pacific” 11 times; with the “Asia-Pacific,” the previously dominant term of strategic reference, unmentioned.

Certainly other issues were noted in the 2018 AUSMIN Joint Declaration; including Russia’s role in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, ensuring ISIS defeat in Syria and Iraq, and continuing anti-Taliban support of Afghanistan. However, the main focus of the Joint Declaration was the Indo-Pacific where it “emphasized both nations’ strong and deepening engagement in the Indo-Pacific” and “the significance of the Indo-Pacific to our shared future.” As such, the Joint Declaration represents the convergence between Australia’s espousal of Indo-Pacific frameworks first seen in its 2013 Defense White Paper, and American espousal of “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” frameworks in the Trump administration since autumn 2017. The Joint Declaration stressed a broad convergence, “our shared strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific, which has diplomatic, security, and economic dimensions.”

Some uncontroversial socio-economic objectives were highlighted in the Joint Declaration for application in the Indo-Pacific: “the United States and Australia decided to collaborate to reduce the threat of emerging infectious diseases in the Indo-Pacific region,” and to “reinforce objectives of Australia’s Health Security Initiative for the Indo-Pacific.”

Alongside such uncontroversial social initiatives were expressions of economic cooperation. With regard to the Pacific basin, the Joint Declaration highlighted that they “support closer cooperation to promote the security, stability, resilience, and development of Pacific Island countries”; and “highlighted the importance of strengthening regional information sharing, maritime security, and domain awareness.” This was a tacit response to China’s greater prominence in the Southern Pacific. Further economic cooperation was pinpointed:

“The Secretaries and Ministers committed to increased bilateral and multilateral cooperation on economic development in the Indo-Pacific, recognizing that security and prosperity are mutually reinforcing. Our two governments will work together, and with partners, to support principles-based and sustainable infrastructure development in the region, which will promote growth and stability.”

Though un-stated, this represented a response to China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) infrastructure initiative. Such responses had also been the focus of the “Trilateral Infrastructure Working Group” which brought together Japanese, Indian, and US officials in February 2018 to foster “increased connectivity in the Indo-Pacific.”

The AUSMIN meeting in July 2018 set out broad Indo-Pacific values. This echoed the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept and strategy unveiled by Shinzo Abe in 2016 and adopted by Donald Trump at the APEC summit in November 2017, which has become the mantra in US strategic formulations. Hence the 2018 AUSMIN Joint Declaration that:

“They made clear their commitment to work together – and with partners – to shape an Indo-Pacific that is open, inclusive, prosperous, and rules-based […] The United States and Australia highlighted the priority each places on supporting an international rules-based order, alongside allies and partners. In the Indo-Pacific, that order has underpinned decades of stability, democracy, and prosperity.”

This was an implicit critique of China, with AUSMIN mention of other “allies and partners” pointing to strategic geometry and potential constraint of China.

In the Joint Declaration, the “open” refers to concerns of a closed Maritime Silk Road push by China, and to the (SCS) being closed down by China achieving its “U-shaped line” claim and thereby making it a Chinese Lake. The focus on “free/democracy” refers to China’s non-democratic authoritarianism. The “rules-based order” refers to China’s rejection of the SCS rulings made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2016. The SCS was prominent elsewhere in the Joint Declaration; which stressed Australia-US concerns over Chinese “militarization of disputed features” and reiterated the importance of “freedom of navigation and overflight.” This point raised the question of joint freedom of navigation operations there by the two allies – to consolidate established US unilateral naval deployments, and Australian unilateral aerial deployments. Given that bilateral Australian-UK freedom of navigation operations in the SCS are being mooted for 2019, this would be an obvious development in US-Australian defense cooperation.

The Joint Declaration “highlighted the importance of US-Australia defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” with the strategic value of the US Marine Rotational Force at Darwin and enhanced air cooperation both restressed and enhanced; together with further naval cooperation where “the principals also decided to integrate US force elements into Australia’s annual Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercise.” Darwin’s importance continues to grow as a convenient jump point for deployment and operation further westwards to the Indian Ocean, further northwards to the SCS and further eastwards to the Pacific Ocean.

Wider defense cooperation was pinpointed in the Joint Declaration; “strengthening bilateral security partnerships with like-minded Indo-Pacific nations through joint training and exercise opportunities.” As to who these like-minded Indo-Pacific nations were, “they welcomed the recent US-Australia-India-Japan consultations on the Indo-Pacific in Singapore and reaffirmed their commitment to strengthen trilateral dialogue with Japan.”

The “trilateral dialogue with Japan” refers to the Australia-Japan-US (AJUS) strategic dialogue mechanism in operation since 2002; which has moved to increasingly significant air force and naval cooperation in the West Pacific and SCS, to China’s unease. The eighth AJUS ministerial meeting, due later in 2018, is expected to mark a formal shift to “Indo-Pacific” terms of reference, echoing the “Indo-Pacific” anchoring already seen in the fourth Australia-India-Japan (AIJ) trilateral, held on 21 July 2018.

The “US-Australia-India-Japan consultations on the Indo-Pacific” refers to the Quad mechanism revived in November 2017. The Quad meeting in June 2018 stressed their common push “for a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region where all countries respect sovereignty, international law, including with respect to freedom of navigation and overflight;” based on “a common commitment, founded on shared democratic values and principles, to uphold and strengthen the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific” and to strengthen “maritime cooperation.”

The explicit message of the AUSMIN meeting was a strategic focus on the Indo-Pacific. The implicit message of much of the Joint Declaration was that, despite their stated hopes that “both nations continue to place a high priority on constructive and beneficial engagement with China,” in reality tacit counter-measures were on show.

India-Indonesia Relations and Indo-Pacific Security


August 17, 2018

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Foreign Policy: India-Indonesia Relations and Indo-Pacific Security

by Vinay Kaura

Asia Pacific Bulletin, No. 437

Publisher: Washington, DC: East-West Center
Available From: August 14, 2018
Publication Date: August 14, 2018
Binding: Electronic
PDF

Vinay Kaura, Assistant Professor at Sardar Patel University in Rajastan, explains that “Modi and President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo agreed to elevate the India-Indonesia relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Though India and Indonesia do have long historical and cultural linkages, strategic partnership has been a recent development. The two share multiple common concerns, one of which pertains to China’s rapid rise and its intentions in the maritime theater. Since 2014, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to boost India’s ties with many Southeast Asian countries as part of its ‘Act East Policy’ which was recently manifest in his visit to Indonesia in late May just ahead of his first-ever speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

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India, no longer content to look east, wants to be an active contributor to the regional balance of power by acting east. Although it is not India’s role to dictate the nature and scope of Indo-Pacific cooperation, through discussion and experimentation, India can find areas where increased cooperation will serve mutual security interests. In the words of Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s minister for maritime affairs, “India and Indonesia relations are important to the balance of power in Asia.” Clearly, Indonesia is equally keen to ensure that Beijing is effectively prevented from moving ahead on its current antagonistic trajectory.

The Modi government’s attempt to connect India to its traditional maritime neighborhood, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, is aimed at sustaining a rules-based liberal international order by ensuring free movement of people, goods, and services through the Strait of Malacca, one of the busiest shipping routes between the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. The freedom of navigation, availability of port infrastructure, and unhindered access to markets are mandatory for this purpose. Hence, the major focus of  Modi’s visit to Indonesia was to highlight that the two countries are close maritime neighbors. Modi and President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo agreed to elevate the India-Indonesia relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Their joint statement emphasized the “importance of achieving a free, open, transparent, rules-based, peaceful, prosperous, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region,” which would uphold “sovereignty and territorial integrity, international law, in particular UNCLOS, freedom of navigation and overflight, sustainable development.”

Jokowi, meanwhile, seeks to transform Indonesia into a maritime power, and is passionate about maritime sovereignty for his country. Hence, repeated assertions about protecting freedom of navigation is unmistakably targeted at Beijing which is engaged in hotly contested territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. Jakarta claims that it is not a party to any territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea; however, Indonesia has not hesitated in clashing with China over fishing rights around the Natuna Islands. Jokowi’s dramatic gesture of holding a cabinet meeting aboard a warship off the Natuna just days after a Sino-Indonesian naval skirmish in 2016 was seen as a show of resolve to Beijing.

Not as bitterly opposed to the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as India, Indonesia is also not as supportive as China expects. After their meeting, Modi sought to link India’s ‘Act East Policy’ and ‘SAGAR’ (Security and Growth for All in the Region) with Jokowi’s ambitious ‘Maritime Fulcrum Policy’.

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In the past, India-Indonesia maritime cooperation has remained largely confined to coordinated bilateral patrols, anti-piracy patrols, and search and rescue exercises. It is thus important for them to move to a more intensive engagement, as together they control the entry point from the Bay of Bengal to the Strait of Malacca. India’s interest in joining the Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP) – a four-nation arrangement between Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand – should be seen in this context. But Indian participation is easier said than done. A meeting among technical experts on May 10 in Bali explored the issue but soon revealed that the Indian side did not have full comprehension of the operational nuances of MSP. Since no forward movement seemed possible, the Modi-Jokowi joint statement merely noted that the May 10 meeting was “to explore ways in enhancing strategic technical cooperation on maritime security.”

Indonesia is the de-facto leader of ASEAN. As the security environment in the region is increasingly exacerbated by US–China rivalry, Jakarta wants ASEAN to be at the center of the conceptualization and evolution of the Indo-Pacific region. Jokowi has been outlining the Indonesian conception of the Indo-Pacific as “Open, transparent and inclusive, promoting a habit of dialogue, promoting cooperation and friendship, and upholding international law”. Modi’s Indo-Pacific vision sounds strikingly similar. He has indicated that India is keen to preserve a free and open regional security architecture in Asia with “ASEAN centrality”, and even without American leadership.

Although New Delhi has thrown its weight behind the Quadrilateral – the grouping of India,  United States, Japan, and Australia that is widely perceived as a counterbalance to rising Chinese geoeconomic and geopolitical assertiveness – in its quest to reshape the Indo-Pacific balance of power, India continues to pursue a hedging approach by both engaging directly with China and seeking to contain Chinese behaviour. Positive momentum generated by the ‘Wuhan consensus’ may have further exacerbated India’s skepticism on the quad.

Strategically, Indonesia is equally important to the United States and China as it straddles vital Indo-Pacific chokepoints.  Jakarta has secured Chinese investment without showing any evidence of a tilt towards Beijing. Being one of the very few countries in the region that has the capability and credibility in making significant contributions towards countering Chinese assertiveness, Jakarta now reckons New Delhi as a credible strategic partner. However, the possibility of Indonesia joining the quad seems remote.

Modi signed a deal with Jokowi allowing India access to northern Sumatra’s Sabang port, enhancing the Indian navy’s ability to maintain a forward presence in the Straits of Malacca. China is not oblivious to its implications. A day ahead of Modi’s trip to Indonesia, China’s state-run Global Times asserted that Beijing would not “turn a blind eye” if New Delhi sought “military access to the strategic island of Sabang,” advising India not to “wrongfully entrap itself into a strategic competition with China and eventually burn its own fingers.”

Given the irreversible geopolitical shifts, the Indo-Pacific has emerged as one of the major hotbeds of global power politics. India’s emerging consensus with Indonesia, as reflected in the elevation of their relationship to the level of a comprehensive strategic partnership, can provide a basis for a closer engagement between the two countries to further develop the Indo-Pacific concept. Delhi and Jakarta have agreed to take concrete steps to accelerate economic and security cooperation in the maritime domain. But the renewed awareness that they are close neighbors, sharing broadly common challenges regarding sustainable use of the oceans must make it imperative for them to contribute more to the maintenance of the regional security order in the Indo-Pacific. The challenge for both Modi and Jokowi will be to institutionalize the maritime cooperation so that the Indo-Pacific becomes truly free, open, and inclusive.

Foreign Affairs:The Modi-Erdoğan Parallel


August 15, 2018

Foreign Affairs:The Modi-Erdoğan Parallel

by 

http://www.project-syndicate.org

While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not achieved the degree of “state capture” that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has, he is also 11 years behind. And the path the two leaders are on is similar enough to invite comparison – and provoke concern.

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NEW DELHI – Comparisons are generally invidious, especially when they involve political leaders from different countries. But, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rose to power 11 years before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there is much about their personal and professional trajectories that makes comparison irresistible.

Both Erdoğan and Modi come from humble, small-town backgrounds: Erdoğan sold lemonade and pastries in the streets of Rize; Modi helped his father and brother run a tea stall on a railway platform in Vadnagar. They are self-made men, energetic and physically fit – Erdoğan was a professional soccer player before becoming a politician; Modi has bragged about his 56-inch (142-centimeter) chest – not to mention effective orators.

Both Erdoğan and Modi were raised with religious convictions that ultimately shaped their political careers. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have both promoted a religiously infused, nationalist creed that they argue is more authentic than the Western-inspired secular ideologies that previously guided their countries’ development.

Yet, to win power, Erdoğan and Modi did not count exclusively on religious voters. Both campaigned on modernist platforms, arguing that by implementing business-friendly policies and reducing corruption, they could bring about greater economic prosperity than the establishment they sought to supplant.

Here, Erdoğan and Modi press both the past and the future into service. Erdoğan extols the Ottoman Empire’s legacy, while telling voters that they are not only “choosing a president and deputies,” but also “making a choice for our country’s upcoming century.” Likewise, Modi constantly evokes the achievements of ancient India, which he claims to be reviving in the name of creating a better future.

In short, Erdoğan and Modi have consolidated their power by glorifying the past, while portraying themselves as dynamic, future-oriented agents of change – heroes galloping in on white stallions, swords upraised, to cut the Gordian knots holding their countries’ down.

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“What Turkey has experienced – and India has not – are bouts of military rule. In fact, India’s democracy is deeply entrenched, making it less vulnerable to capture by a single ruler. That partly explains why it is so difficult for many Indians to imagine their country following in Turkey’s footsteps to become a majoritarian illiberal democracy with an autocrat in charge.”–Shashi Tharoor

At the same time, Erdoğan and Modi have painted themselves as political outsiders, who represent the “real” Turks or Indians long marginalized by cosmopolitan secularists. With popular discontent high when they rose to power, such political messaging fell on receptive ears. The narrative of resentment against the established secular elites, peppered with religious-chauvinist discourse and historical revisionism, facilitated their emergence as voices of the middle classes of the hinterlands and second-tier cities and towns.

When Erdoğan first became prime minister in 2003, his position was bolstered by booming global growth, emboldening him to start transforming the Turkish polity. His political formula – a potent compound of religious identity, triumphalist majoritarianism, hyper-nationalism, increasing authoritarianism (including institutional dominance), constraints on the media, strong economic growth, and a compelling personal brand – carried him to re-election as prime minister twice, and from there to the presidency in 2014.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, Modi has adapted Erdoğan’s formula to his own effort to reshape India. He has sought to marginalize Muslims and reinforce Hindu chauvinism. Minorities in general feel beleaguered, as Modi’s nationalism does not merely exclude them, but portrays them as traitors.

Moreover, in Modi’s India, political loyalties are often purchased, and institutions are subverted to serve a narrow sectarian agenda. Dissenters in the media and the universities have faced intimidation. The only area where Modi has been tripped up is GDP growth, owing to his government’s gross economic mismanagement.

On the international stage, too, there are notable parallels between how Erdoğan and Modi conduct themselves. Both pursue activist foreign policies aimed at boosting their domestic image, and have cultivated diaspora support. Erdoğan’s speeches in the Balkans might antagonize the United States and Europe, and even Serbs and Croats, but they raise his stock with Turks. When Modi addresses stadiums full of Indian expatriates on his visits abroad, his speeches are aimed squarely at audiences back home.

Soner Cagaptay, a Turkish analyst and author of a book on Erdoğan, recently remarked, “Half of the country hates him, and thinks he can do nothing right. But at the same time, the other half adores him, and thinks he can do nothing wrong.” The same is true of Modi in India.

Of course, there are important differences between Turkey and India. For starters, Turkey’s population, at 81 million, is less than half that of just one Indian state, Uttar Pradesh, with its population of 210 million. Turkey is 98% Muslim, while India is only 80% Hindu. Islamism, as Hindu chauvinists never tire of pointing out, is a global phenomenon; Hindutva is not. Turkey has no equivalent of Mahatma Gandhi, with his message of non-violence and co-existence drilled into the head of every Indian schoolchild.

Moreover, Turkey is more or less a developed country, while India still has a long way to go to reach that point. And, unlike India, Turkey was never colonized or partitioned on religious grounds, as India was to create Pakistan (though the exchange of populations that accompanied Turkey’s separation from Greece comes close).

What Turkey has experienced – and India has not – are bouts of military rule. In fact, India’s democracy is deeply entrenched, making it less vulnerable to capture by a single ruler. That partly explains why it is so difficult for many Indians to imagine their country following in Turkey’s footsteps to become a majoritarian illiberal democracy with an autocrat in charge.

But while it is true that Modi and the BJP have not achieved the degree of “state capture” that Erdoğan and the AKP have, they are also 11 years behind. And the path they are on is similar enough to invite comparison – and provoke concern. The warning bells are ringing: like the Turkish lira, the India rupee has lost over 5% of its value in the last month. With upcoming elections in both countries – Turkey this month, and India in Spring 2019 – will voters heed the alarm?

India :Rajiv Gandhi’s Foreign Policy


August 11, 2018

India :Rajiv Gandhi’s Foreign Policy– Diplomacy in Tough Times

By Antony Clement

https://moderndiplomacy.eu/2018/08/09/rajiv-gandhis-foreign-policy-diplomacy-in-tough-times/

 “Though he was advised about the threat for his life but never shied away from facing the challenges. He was involved in ‘making India ‘strong, independent and self-reliant’. Further, he never yielded to any sentiments. He knew that there was no room for sentiments while making foreign policy. He was ready to sacrifice anything in the interest of the country. Thus ‘moral and physical courage’ were the central part of his foreign policy making. He carefully chose his foreign visits as well as his policy had brought positive implications on India’s diplomacy.

His breakthroughs have been standing today as good examples and as a guiding pillar for us to formulate policies with respect to many countries. It would be sure the present day diplomatic circle cannot articulate policy without pronouncing the name ‘Rajiv Gandhi.”

…his achievements in the area of India’s foreign policy would not be wiped out or to be erased. The imprint of his legacy in the making of Indian foreign policy will stay longer in shaping of India’s diplomacy and ever lingers in our memory. –Antony Clement

 

The Late Air India Pilot who left his footprints in the Indian Sands as Prime Minister

 

The end of the World War II in 1945 gave the birth to Cold War among the two superpowers. The U.S. and the USSR had respectively been spreading their ideologies (Capitalism and Socialism) across the globe. This was continued till the disintegration of the Soviet in 1991. International relations scholars described 1980s as the peak period of bipolar competition which had already expanded to the Indian Sub-continent. Shri Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister of our country during that time (1984-89).

Throughout the Cold War many developing countries were on the hinge, had stuck without moving either side but wedged with Non-allied Movement (NAM). Moreover, at that time India was leading the NAM, a trustful head for the Third World countries. Further, throughout the Cold War playoffs, building relations with other countries were not only a hard task but getting a new partner would be seen as suspicious in our old friend’s camp. Hence, in the Cold War era reaching out to new friends while keeping the old friends close to us was one of the difficult jobs and challenging. In general, articulating strategy and diplomacy would be really a tough choice but necessary. If a single word is spelt out wrongly would have greater consequences in the international stage. However, the neo-realist thinker Kenneth Waltz “believes that bipolar systems are more stable and thus provide a better guarantee of peace and security” (Jackson & Sorensen, 2003).

In this article let us discuss his important visits and how Rajiv Gandhi’s state visits were received by the major-powers at the time of the Cold War and what India has gained from his diplomacy.

Since the end of the World War II (apart from the five established ‘major powers’ – the U.S., Soviet Russia, France, UK and China) India was the only country that has been expected, and has the required potential, to become a major power. Surely, this would not be a sweet tune to neither the U.S. nor China. So both the countries worked against India with the strategy of containment policy supporting Pakistan in South Asia. As we said, the various U.S administrations have their strategy to contain to keep India within the Sub-continent, have been well working with the help of puppet regimes in Pakistan.

On the other hand, China was blindly helping India’s adversary Pakistan to build nuclear arsenals and was then waiting to consider if Islamabad would lose the support of Washington at any point of time in a situation when the Soviet Union withdraws its forces from Afghanistan. Presuming the “U.S. inaction in the face of the Pakistani acquisition of nuclear weapons with the assistance of China, Rajiv Gandhi took the plunge and secretly authorized going nuclear, notwithstanding his personal sentiments to the contrary. The Agni was successfully test-fired in May 1989” (Baldev Raj Nayar & T.V.Paul, 2003).

During the Cold War period the international politics was tough but Rajiv Gandhi’s visits brought new friends and breakthrough in India’s diplomacy. Under his leadership it was a proud moment for India in the international system. The young Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s new approaches were received by the world leaders. He never goes for the state visits without having solutions for the long outstanding issues. Some of the divergent issues were converted into convergent because of fresh thoughts pouring in the Indian foreign policy making.

It has strengthened India’s authority in the Indian Ocean and particularly gave a turning point in India’s relations with the U.S. and China. His diplomatic visits to Sri Lanka or Australia – there were new lessons to be learned. Therefore, the international relations scholars described, “Indeed, his period in office saw India become more assertive in power terms in the region. At the same time Rajiv Gandhi’s government “walking on two legs: Economic reform and nuclear weaponisation” (Baldev Raj Nayar & T.V.Paul, 2003).

In May 1988, under the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India detonated her second nuclear test. But it was built, a decade ago under the able administration of Rajiv Gandhi. He was the architect of pro-poor liberal economy. Moreover, modernization in telecommunication sector, reforms in education, science & technology took place under his leadership. He introduced computer in consultation with Shri Sam Pitroda, the communication wizard and Rajiv is the builder of the 21st century India.

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Rajiv and Sanjay with their mother Prime Minister Indira Gandhi

Rajiv Gandhi always looks at our neighbors in two dimensions. First, when they are in need of our help he immediately reaches out to them. Through this approach he always makes them feel comfortable but at the same time keeps India’s interest alive. Second, his policies are formulated to make the neighbors to stay close to New Delhi. Also he never keeps quiet  in Delhi by sending a statement through the diplomatic channel while our neighbors were facing troubles.

In 1988, ‘The Operation Cactus’ in Maldives to thwart the coup against President Abdul Gayoom’s government would be seen as the best example for his realist approach. However, he always gave room for ‘mutual cooperation.’ Thus his foreign policy had the mixture of realism and liberalism, maintains India’s power balance in the Indian Ocean Region. Particularly in the Male crisis before the superpowers turn their focus on Gayoom’s invitation, Rajiv Gandhi “responded with an overwhelming speed and efficiency. With less than 16 hours since President Gayoom’s call – Indian troops were deployed in one swift motion” and saved the Maldives government (Vishnu Gopinath, The Quint, Feb 06, 2018). At the same time since Feb 2018, 16 weeks had gone; the new political crisis in Maldives is seeking India’s help. The department of external affairs has sent few statements regarding the Male issue and then kept mum.

These approaches indicate that Modi’s government is not in a position to enhance India’s power projection in the Indian Ocean Region, but extending an olive branch to cool down China. These are the policy differences of the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and the present Prime Minister Narendera Modi.

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It would be understandable that the relations between India and Pakistan were never in comfortable course. During his visit to the SARC Summit in Islamabad the ‘mutual effort’ of Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto brought a new twist in ‘normalization of bilateral relations’ between India and Pakistan. “Both prime ministers pledged not to attack or assist foreign powers to attack either country’s nuclear installations and facilities. This summit was described as the dawn of a new era in Pak-India ties” (Shaikh Aziz, The Dawn, August 2016). Further, both the leaders applied step by step approach and “widened their official contacts initiating unprecedented military – to military talks to ace tensions on their northern border, where Indian and Pakistani troops have skirmished for years” (Steve Coll, The Washington Post, July 17, 1989). These developments suggest us that the visits of the state heads are not only mandatory but it should demonstrate some valuable output.

Rajiv Gandhi’s intervention in the Island-nation of Sri Lanka was the striking example for bringing peace and unity in Sri Lanka, and India’s articulation of power. This was also with the aim of keeping the U.S. out of the Indian Ocean especially not to get a foothold in Colombo in the time of Cold War. For the same cause, he lost his life at the very young age but he never folded his hands nor sat quiet when our neighbor was in need.

R. Hariharan a military intelligence specialist wonderfully writes, “The Rajiv Gandhi – Jayewardene Accord, signed in the Cold War era in 1987 was undoubtedly strategic – collectively address all the three contentious issues between India and Sri Lanka: strategic interests, people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka and Tamil minority rights in Sri Lanka. The Accord was unique with respect to India’s beginning with respect to India’s articulation of power, set a strong message to its neighbors, global powers and delineated India’s strategic zone of influence in the Indian Ocean region” (R. Hariharan, July 28, 2010, The Hindu)..

These are indications of his presumption on the importance of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for our security and our responsibility in maintaining the freedom of navigation. Rajiv Gandhi was well presumed of China’s interest in the Sub-continent. Hence, he had formulated India’s policies toward in keeping our neighborhood closer to us. The whole of his tenure as the prime minister he thwarted the Chinese entry from the Indian Ocean.

The war with China in 1962 had completely stalled the ties between New Delhi and Beijing. Accepting the then Chinese Premier Li Pang invitation in 1988 he landed in Beijing. Prof. Harsh Pant from the Department of War Studies, Kings College, London says “A new leaf in Sino-Indian ties” (Harsh V. Pant, 2016). “This visit was followed by a flurry of high-level diplomatic exchanges” (David M. Malone, 2011).  Further, Baldev Raj Nayar commenting about this visit a ‘turning point’, “When the two countries agreed to set up a joint working group to resolve the border dispute. A key element in the forward movement was the Indian concession not to insist on prior resolution of the border dispute, though without shelving it, but to move on to improve relations in other areas” (Baldev Raj Nayar & T.V.Paul, 2003).

Further, both the countries come to an understanding of in realizing to initiate the trust building and set up a border management mechanism. Today, the Doklum crisis or Chinese troops crossing into India in the Himalayan border has been managed under this institutional framework. Thus changes were made in the Indo-China relations. However, Rajiv Gandhi never promised to the Indian voters that he would do miracles if he voted for power. But Modi has promised to the Indian public if voted to power he would do wonders in six months. Does he bring breakthrough in India’s border talks with China? Or does he raise the Doklum issue with China’s president often meeting him in various bilateral and multilateral forums?

Further, in recent times Modi had to snub Dalai Lama to pacify China was not a policy mistake, but deliberately performed. He knows since the general elections are just ten months away from now if “China-triggered flashpoint would be more harmful for his political future” (Rajeev Sharma, dailyo.in). Hence, for his short-term political gains he decided to turning his back on Dalai Lama. Further, his ‘strategic restraint’ exposed in the case of crisis in Maldives also.

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Rajiv’s first foreign state visit was to the longtime friend, the former Soviet Union. Commentators viewed the first destination was deliberately chosen. Apart from the usual bilateral ties between India and Soviet Union, various areas from military procurement to civil nuclear technology, and mutual agreements in other sectors, Rajiv had always maintained India’s ‘Special Relations’ with the Soviet Union. Because “Soviet Union consistently gave India valuable political, diplomatic and strategic support bilaterally as well as in international forums on Kashmir and other vital issues affecting India’s national interests” (Rajiv Sikri, 2009). However, in every meeting he raised the universal concern of the danger of nuclear weapons with President Mikhail Gorbachev. He stood against the illusion of ‘limited nuclear war.’ His presumption was at any moment nuclear weapons would not and should not be as a guarantor of global peace. At that time since India was the leader of the NAM obviously criticisms were poured out against India’s ‘Friendship Treaty’ with the Soviet. However, Rajiv Gandhi bravely raises the global concern on nuclear arsenals equally with the U.S. and the USSR. At this point the young prime minister’s articulation of foreign policy toward the West was sometimes concern for the Soviet leaders, but Rajiv comfortably expressed India’s view. Meanwhile, the USSR understood India’s rise through the prism of Rajiv Gandhi. Hence, the Soviet Union gave Rajiv Gandhi the ‘status of a world leader.’

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In the Cold War climate Rajiv Gandhi and his predecessors were compelled to manage the U.S.’s regional containment strategy. For the U.S., they well know India’s leadership and major power aspirations. So they don’t want to give a path for the Soviet’s best friend India to rise out of the Sub-continent. At this juncture Rajiv decided to bring down the hostility nature of India-U.S. relations. He visited the U.S. in June 1985. “That trip has been hailed by many as likely to contribute to a new era of cooperation between New Delhi and Washington (Steven R. Weisman, The New York Times, 1985).

He gave a wonderful speech which was sweet and short by carrying a hint in his hand which had the strategy for both the countries to have greater understanding. At the Joint session of the US Congress he said, “I am young and I too have a dream. I have no doubt this visit will help to bring about greater understanding between our countries” (Youtube).

In his reply President Ronald Reagan said, “Today we opened up personal channels of communication.” Further, signing a “memorandum of understanding” with the U.S., he promotes technological cooperation between both the countries (Baldev Raj Nayar & T.V.Paul, 2003). Hence, we should understand our present relations with the U.S. or China are the continuation of Rajiv’s breakthrough made during his visits to those countries in his premiership.

Modi went to the U.S. several times in the last four years. What happened to the India-U.S. seriously negotiated nuclear deal? Are there any changes in the position of India and U.S. in the liability issue to implement the nuclear deal?

Conclusion

The 1980s has registered the crucial period in the history of Cold War. But each of Rajiv Gandhi’s visits was well planned in advance; policies were made with sufficient consultations, and had definite trajectories to strengthen India’s interest globally. His visits to Pakistan, China and the U.S., further, the way he was handling the crisis in the Indian Ocean islands would tell us how much is he committed in keeping not only India’s ambition in the international system but also have delivered India’s moral responsibility to help our neighbors while they required our support. Under Modi’s leadership our capabilities are not properly demonstrated.

Modi even evaded in visiting Maldives in his Indian Ocean Islands tour in 2015, the reason for his evasion was stated by his office as ‘the time was not favorable for the prime minister to visit’. Rajiv Gandhi visited Pakistan in a crucial time of the Cold War. His office does not say that Pakistan’ situation was not conducive to the prime minister to visit that country.

Though he was advised about the thereat for his life but never shied away from facing the challenges. He involved in ‘making India ‘strong, independent and self-reliant’. Further, he never yields to any sentiments. He knew that there was no room for sentiments while making foreign policy. He was ready to sacrifice anything in the interest of the country. Thus ‘moral and physical courage’ were the central part of his foreign policy making. He carefully chooses his foreign visits as well as his policy had brought positive implications on India’s diplomacy. His breakthroughs have been standing today as good examples and as a guiding pillar for us to formulate policies with respect to many countries. It would be sure the present day diplomatic circle cannot articulate policy without pronouncing the name ‘Rajiv Gandhi.’

Hence, his achievements in the area of India’s foreign policy would not be wiped out or to be erased. The imprint of his legacy in the making of Indian foreign policy will stay longer in shaping of India’s diplomacy and ever lingers in our memory.

Malaysia: Embracing Abe-san and Bro Modi


August 1, 2018

Dr. Mahathir’s Look East (Japan) and West (India) Geo-Economics–Embracing Abe San and Bro Modi

by Dr. Shankaran Nambiar, MIER

http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/07/13/mahathirs-foreign-policy-reset/

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Malaysian Prime Minister Dr.Mahathir greets Bro Modi

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad appears to be setting the tone for a revision of Malaysia’s geo-economic policy, if the bilateral meetings with his Indian and Japanese counterparts in the early days of his administration are anything to go by. 

 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on Mahathir not too long after the latter assumed office. The meeting was significant in so far as Modi is keen on ‘Acting East’ and forging stronger ties with ASEAN. With Mahathir at the helm, Modi may well have an active and influential partner in the region.

India is likely to be an economic powerhouse in the coming decade or two, and any long-term economic architecture in the region will have to take this reality into account.

Does Mahathir run the risk of disrupting Malaysia’s economic relations with China by engaging with other partners? Not quite, but he does want to tilt the balance.

Mahathir is not questioning China’s intention to build friendly, harmonious and prosperous relations with the region or with Malaysia. But he is adding a dose of reality to some of the more questionable investment agreements that Malaysia has entered into with China and wants these deals to be reviewed. Mahathir has said that ‘we will be friendly to China but we don’t want to be indebted to China’.

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With Ali Baba’s Jack Ma of China

The Prime Minister is keen to do business with anyone who means business, provided there are no hidden caveats and Malaysia is not compromised. If there was any question of wanting to cut off China, Mahathir would not have met with Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma.

This brings us to Mahathir’s meeting with a second foreign leader, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Why did Mahathir choose to go to Japan on his first official overseas trip soon after he came to power?

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Teaming with Abe-San on Look East Partnership with No.7 Jersey

Mahathir probably sees value in reviving his ‘Look East’ policy, which he pursued while prime minister in the 1980s, perhaps in a different form and for slightly different reasons. There is an element of nostalgia, to be sure. But Mahathir is not is not a sentimentalist.

The previous Najib administration did not treat the notion of equidistance from global superpowers with the sensitivity it deserved. There was a tumbling over to China coupled with a reticence to engage with Japan, at least with nothing of the enthusiasm that Tokyo enjoyed during the Mahathir 1.0 era.

Mahathir has always believed in maintaining equidistance from other powers, preferring to work with the larger economies as equals. Mahathir would, by logical extension, be willing to cooperate with China’s Belt and Road Initiative as long as the partnership is fair and without Beijing using Malaysia as its playground. In that respect, reaffirming Malaysia’s long friendship with Japan is a reassertion of Mahathir’s pragmatic approach to geo-economic policy.

But equidistance is not possible without the existence of something like the Non-Aligned Movement. In lieu of that, Mahathir will likely pursue equidistance through a more integrated ASEAN in partnership with other countries such as the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, India and the Central Asian states. This would be a revival of his East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC) concept.

A close-knit ASEAN, through the EAEC, would be able to give countries such as Malaysia more access to foreign markets without having to pay an onerous price for doing so. It would allow countries like India to trade and invest in Southeast Asia or other places while being able to show their home constituencies that they can make gains without paying for them with tough commitments.

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Strengthening ASEAN’s economic cohesion and including other powers through the EAEC would mean that neither the United States nor China could dominate Malaysia’s foreign policy. Malaysia would not have to choose between aligning with either power.

Mahathir’s discussion with Jack Ma after his India and Japan meetings shows the Prime Minister’s pragmatism — more than being caught up in great power politics, Mahathir wants to push ahead with attracting no-strings-attached investment, be it from China, India or any other part of the world.

Mahathir understands that trade and investment are Malaysia’s lifeblood. Improving Malaysia’s networks with the rest of the world’s markets must take top priority to foster better trade and investment connections.

Mahathir’s meetings with Modi and Abe will set in motion a couple of initiatives. Malaysia will return to its default position of maintaining equidistance between superpowers. Japan will not feel it is being edged out of Malaysia’s investment landscape.

Malaysia will stand for a free and unaligned ASEAN, with Mahathir leading a campaign for a new trade architecture that might be more palatable to Southeast Asian countries  and which will minimise the conflicting demands of China, the United States and India by embracing Japan.

Of course, the EAEC idea will have its share of detractors and non-adherents. Much as Mahathir has a tough job setting domestic affairs right now, he has the no less difficult task of realigning the country’s geo-economic policy.

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Shankaran Nambiar is a senior research fellow at the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research.

A version of this article originally appeared here in The Sun Daily.