Monday, June 11, 2018
India and the Shangri-La Dialogue
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The Modi Government has time and again showed adherence to the rules-based order in international forums. What Modi said at the Dialogue was the reiteration of this principle without directly pointing a finger at China
Shangri-La is usually associated with a place in the Himalaya immortalised by James Hilton in his 1933 novel, the Lost Horizon; a mystical valley where people live in harmony under the compassionate direction of a lamasery: In other words, a paradise on earth, a high-altitude utopian retreat, a permanently happy land.
The Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) or Asia Security Summit annually organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), an independent think-tank based in London, is not about a perfect word, it deals with today’s chaotic real world. But the Track One inter-governmental security forum attended by heads of Government, defence ministers or military chiefs of the Asia-Pacific States, happens to be held in a hotel called Shangri-La in Singapore since 2002.
According to the organisers, “the Dialogue has (helped) built confidence and fostered practical security cooperation, by facilitating easy communication and fruitful contact among the region’s most important defence and security policymakers.” It is not an easy proposition, to ‘cultivate a sense of community’ in the region.
This year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the keynote address: “I am pleased to return to a region, known to India since ancient times as Swarnabhoomi, (the Land of Gold),” he told the delegates, adding: “For thousands of years, Indians have turned to the East. Not just to see the Sun rise, but also to pray for its light to spread over the entire world. The human-kind now looks to the Rising East, with the hope to see the promise that this 21st century beholds for the whole world, because the destiny of the world will be deeply influenced by the course of developments in the Indo-Pacific region.”
For decades, we were told that the pinnacle of diplomacy was ‘non-alignment’. Though it did not lead India anywhere, it became almost a religious dogma which often translated into an alignment with Moscow and a rejection of the West (except in November 1962, when Nehru ran to the United States for support).
Today, the situation is more healthy; Delhi, keeping India’s interests in mind, ‘aligns’ with the world’s major shareholders; it has perhaps been the greatest foreign policy’s achievement of the four-year rule of the Modi Sarkar.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis was not the last to praise the Prime Minister for his warning on the debts incurred by some countries; Modi had spoken about the dangers of accepting loans that were ‘too good to be true’.
Mattis told reporters: “(Modi) made a really good point there about the dangers of accepting loans that are ‘too good to be true’, and being forced into another agenda.”
The message was obviously targeting some of China’s practices through the Belt and Road Initiative; countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Nepal, all India’s neighbours, are at the wrong end of these ‘loans’.
This year China sent a lower-than-usual delegation “in stark contrast to previous events, none of its members will give a keynote speech,” wrote The South China Morning Post before the event. When asked to explain, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying remained blissfully vague, it had ‘to do with work arrangements’.
But according to the South China Morning Post’s sources: “The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had scaled down its presence at the Shangri-La Dialogue to focus on domestic reforms.” The Chinese delegation to the 17th Shangri-La Dialogue was headed by Lt Gen He Lei, deputy head of the PLA’s Academy of Military Sciences.
But it is not that China was not listening, despite the remarks on ‘debts’, China was pleased with India, especially after Modi declared: “No other relationship of India has as many layers as our relations with China. Our trade is growing. I firmly believe that Asia and the world will have a better future if India and China work together with trust and confidence, keeping in mind each other's interests.”
During a press conference, He Lei praised these words as a friendly and positive gesture; he also explained: “The mission of the Chinese delegation is to elaborate China's foreign diplomacy and its defensive defense strategy, as well as to show the confident image of China’s military.”
The South China Sea issue was of course the ‘hot topic’ of the Dialogue, Here Hilton’s harmonious paradise was still far-away and China’s image has recently taken a beating.
However, the Chinese representative strongly defended his country’s interests and affirmed: “The Chinese government and the Chinese people will never allow any person, any organization and any political party to separate any piece of Chinese territory from China at any time and in any form.” He also added that the PLA “has the determination, confidence and ability to safeguard the security of China’s sovereignty, unity and development interest.”
At the same time, China’s tone remained surprisingly soft vis-à-vis India. Zhao Xiaozhuo, a research fellow at the PLA Academy of Military Sciences, told The Global Times: “The India factor is what makes this year’s SLD different from previous ones,” perhaps because Beijing saw in Modi’s speech that, “the quasi-alliance between the US, Japan, India and Australia will not last long.”
Lt Gen He Lei, however, justified China’s deployment of ‘defensive’ facilities on the artificial islands as legitimate and necessary.
By now, China probably realised that its unilateral occupation of the South China Sea may not be accepted as a permanent fact by the rest of the Indo-Pacific community.
Take France and Britain, their defence ministers announced that their warships would sail through the South China Sea “to challenge Beijing’s expanding military presence in the disputed waters.”
Florence Parly, the French Armed Forces Minister told the forum that a French naval task group, together with British helicopters and ships, would soon be visiting Singapore “and then sail ‘into certain areas’ of the South China Sea.”
The French and British warships may cross into ‘territorial waters claimed by Beijing’; Parly even envisioned a potential encounter with China’s military: “At some point a stern voice intrudes into the transponder and tells us to sail away from supposedly ‘territorial waters’. But our commander then calmly replies that he will sail forth, because these, under international law, are indeed international waters.”
Mattis also spoke of the US plan to ramp up its freedom of navigation operations to counter Beijing’s militarisation in the region. The US does not accept Beijing’s contention that these territorial disputes are a matter between China and its Asian neighbours only.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi conluded by mentioning ‘Five S’, Samman (respect); Samvad (dialogue); Sahayog (cooperation), Shanti (peace), and Samriddhi (prosperity). He promised that “India will engage with the world in peace, with respect, through dialogue and absolute commitment to international law,” while adding: “We will work with others to keep our seas, space and airways free and open.”
But Delhi so far has managed to keep a balanced foreign policy; and India does not need to be non-aligned for that.