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Modi’s 3-Nation Tour: BOOSTING ‘ACT EAST’ POLICY By Amrita Banerjee, 21 May, 2015 Print E-mail

Round The World

New Delhi, 21 May 2015

Modi’s 3-Nation Tour


By Amrita Banerjee

Research Scholar, JNU


Having visited 17 countries in his first year in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diplomatic feats made him set his eyes this time on the strategically-important East Asia. His three nation Asian visit remained dominated especially by his tour to China whereas his stops in Mongolia and South Korea received less attention. But unlike the other tours, this visit was markedly different because it was not just about inking economic deals but had certain strategic connotations as well. This East Asian tour was undertaken at the first place to boost India’s East Asia policy, align it with ‘Make in India’ initiatives and bring momentum to the country’s foreign policy in the strategically significant region not just by ‘Looking East’ but also ‘Acting East’.


But beyond this rhetoric, there is some hard hitting reality as well. This Prime Ministerial tour should be seen at the backdrop of an increasingly volatile Asia. The countries of this continent seem to be locked in a peculiar predicament. States in this region are trading, investing, and growing together but this economic bonhomie is also beset by security tensions and dysfunctional diplomatic relationships. This situation is especially true in the case of India and China. Beijing might be New Delhi’s largest trading partner but border tensions, its increasing investments in Pakistan and elsewhere in India’s neighborhood and stubbornness in the South China Sea undermine that positive dynamic.


Since both Modi and President Xi are strong leaders who have assertive and bold working styles, there was widespread speculation about a possible solution to the border dispute. The boundary issue has been a sticking point in the relations between the two major Asian countries. Even though both are making efforts to settle it through Special Representatives’ talks that have held 18 rounds of discussions so far, this vexing issue continues to linger on. Both leaders did touch on some tough issues like border and trans-border rivers in the recently concluded meeting but nothing tangible came out of it.


Though good amount of groundwork seems to be already done, it is time that both the leaders have to face the issue head on if they want to resolve it while they are in office. Sorting out a sensitive issue with a neighbour isn’t easy, more so when we have a war history with that country and especially today when the relationship gets marked by low levels of mutual trust.This meeting did not result in any concrete agreement on the border issue but as a measure to strengthen trust, Modi-Xi sealed their deal with some non-controversial ‘do-ables’ taking into account their complementarities.


The most important takeaways included: $22 billion in business-to-business pacts, military headquarters hotline connection, task force to counter widening trade deficit and market access issues and about dozens of pacts in the area of cooperation in skill development, railways, mining and minerals, broadcasting, tourism, ocean studies, establishing sister city relations and consulates in Chennai and Chengdu and E-visa facility extended to Chinese nationals. As can be seen from the nature of the pacts, geo-economics and not geo-politics seemed to dictate Modi’s visit to Beijing. However, relying on this alone could be detrimental because Beijing had recently expressed the ‘undeniable fact’ of the existence of a ‘huge dispute’ with India with reference to the border. Against this backdrop, to expect the burgeoning economic engagement and trade relations to serve as leverage in settling the longstanding boundary issue would be a mistake.


His visit to Mongolia and later South Korea in his second and final leg of the tri-nation tour respectively also focused on economics but it had a distinct strategic flavor as well. Mongolia is a geographic pivot between China and Russia. In this context, Modi’s visit to Mongolia can be seen in the context of China. Noting the fact that Beijing has deepened its presence around India with several projects in nations on India’s periphery, it’s high time for India to tie up partnerships in China’s periphery as well. Mongolia, as India’s strategic partner and a ‘third neighbour’ can be significant for New Delhi in this regard. Besides this, Ulaanbaatar would play a key role in Asian energy transportation, serve as a source of uranium, could factor in New Delhi’s Russia policy and safeguard its interests in the Asia-Pacific region.


Thus, in an attempt to reinvigorate New Delhi’s ties with Ulaanbaatar further, India announced a $1bn line of credit for the country to support its economic expansion and infrastructure building and further signed agreements in areas of border and cyber security. Visiting the country on the occasion of Ulaanbaatar’s 25 years of democracy celebrations, Modi even called Mongolia ‘the new bright light of democracy in our world’. Hence, his trip to Mongolia, the first by an Indian Prime Minister, was a win-win situation for mutual benefit because it not only helped Ulaanbaatar but also offered a new strategic leverage to New Delhi in dealing with China.


Similar was the case with South Korea. With an up gradation of ties to ‘special strategic partnership’ and armed with seven bilateral agreements inked between President Park Guen-hye and Modi on Double Taxation Avoidance Convention, cooperation in shipping and logistics, audiovisual co-production, transport, highways and electric power development in new energy industries, this meeting was much beyond economics.


South Korea is a democracy and one country that has made tremendous progress with its infrastructure, technology, and economy from which India can learn a lot especially with reference to its ‘smart cities’ project. It is also one of the first countries that sought to increase economic engagement with India after it initiated its ‘Look East’ policy with Seoul’s investment touching to an estimated $3 billion in the past two decades. Besides this, Seoul has a strategic significance as well because New Delhi is increasingly wary of Pyongyang’s increasing proximity to Islamabad in the recent times. With the conclusion of a couple of successful joint military exercises with Seoul in the past, India surely can rely on South Korea as an important pivot for itself besides Vietnam in the Asia Pacific region.


In a nutshell, if an analysis is done on Modi’s Asian tour, it would evoke mixed responses. Whereas the India-China border issue remained unresolved, the host of economic agreements inked between them might bring some goodwill in future so that this sensitive issue is finally sorted out. The less hyped Mongolia and South Korea trips, in fact, were more successful as they strengthened India’s strategic linkages with countries on China’s periphery besides bringing some economic benefits as well.


While Modi’s critics at home may complain about his foreign policy ventures being full of hype, the truth is that he is taking some cautious and calibrated steps to keep India’s interests intact in this uncertain world of anarchic realpolitik. In this regard, Modi’s foreign policy is markedly different from his predecessors and is worthy of praise. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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