Chinese Takeaway: Not so coy

The reference says more about India’s changing political attitude under Modi.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Updated: December 3, 2014 10:26 am
Modi and Obama greet each other.


The fact that the South China Sea was mentioned for the first time in a joint statement between India and the United States during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington has been widely noted. The reference says more about India’s changing political attitude under Modi than New Delhi’s policy towards the maritime territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas between Beijing and its Asian neighbours, especially Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Ever since China became more assertive in the Pacific, Delhi, which has its own territorial disputes with Beijing in the Great Himalayas, started weighing in on the issue of freedom of navigation. After all, much of India’s growing trade with East Asia flows through the South China Sea. Modi reaffirmed this in the joint statement with US President Barack Obama and restated India’s position that the maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

These assertions have become a regular feature in India’s joint statements with its partners in East Asia. What is new is the fact that Delhi under Modi is no longer coy about affirming its position in conjunction with the US. One of the unfortunate diplomatic legacies of India’s non-alignment has been Delhi’s reluctance to highlight any convergence of interests with the US on regional and global issues. A self-assured Modi is changing all that by injecting a measure of pragmatism and openness into India’s positions.

Given India’s growing trade and its increasing dependence on the  sea for the import of vital energy resources, India’s interests are similar to those of the US, the world’s foremost maritime power. The converging maritime interests have been reflected in the steady expansion of the engagement between the Indian and US navies since India began economic globalisation at the turn of the 1990s. But there has been considerable reluctance in the ministry of defence during the UPA years to realise the full potential  of naval cooperation with the US. Modi, in contrast, is ready to explore the possibilities.

Beyond Malabar

It was not a great surprise, therefore, when Modi and Obama agreed to intensify bilateral maritime security cooperation and “upgrade” the Malabar series of bilateral naval exercises. The Malabar series began in the early 1990s under the Congress government led by P.V. Narasimha Rao, and was given a fresh boost by Pranab Mukherjee, who served as the defence minister during the first two years of the UPA government elected to power in 2004.

But the moment A.K. Antony stepped into Mukherjee’s big shoes at the ministry of defence in 2006, Delhi’s attitude to maritime security cooperation with the US

became increasingly ambivalent. Antony seemed to have little appreciation of India’s new maritime imperative and was reluctant to strengthen the partnership with the US. He had even problems with the Indian navy’s name for the joint exercises with the US — “Malabar”. Antony was concerned that name might upset the Muslim sentiment in his home state, Kerala.

With Antony spending seven long years at the MoD, India’s naval diplomacy with the world, not just the US, had to endure many setbacks. It will be a while before Modi can get the MoD to become more enthusiastic about pursuing India’s maritime interests.

The joint statement’s reference to upgrading the Malabar series of exercises suggests that Delhi and Washington are now ready to elevate the quality of the exercise as well as bring in third parties like Japan, Australia, Singapore and other interested East Asian nations. Equally interesting is the reference in the joint statement to enhancing naval technology cooperation between the two countries. According to informed speculation, the US might now be ready to offer some critical technologies to India in the construction of its next aircraft carrier.

Maritime Silk Road

Modi’s maritime diplomacy is not limited to the naval domain. Transborder infrastructure development is a major priority for the NDA government. The PM’s joint statement with Obama talks about bilateral cooperation in integrating the subcontinent with the markets of East Asia through an “Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor”.

The proposal is similar to China’s plan for a maritime silk road linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans. For India, which appears wary of China’s plans for the Indian Ocean, the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor could be the first step towards building its  own maritime silk road.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’

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  1. I
    Oct 8, 2014 at 7:33 pm
    Non aligned posturing was the weakest posturing. Only renunciation by a King is worth noting, if you don't have sthing and you renounce it - its only sour grapes. We have to speak up from a position of strength - Congress undermined this by repeated public demonstration of weakness
    1. A
      A S
      Oct 8, 2014 at 3:28 am
      UPA government was giving away doles called right to x right to y. Now Indians can breathe easy. Power without responsibility for 10 years has caused serious damage to not only economy but also seriously dented our image.
      1. L
        Lt Col
        Oct 8, 2014 at 4:39 pm
        In the name of electoral benefits to be garnered from Muslim community, Mr Antony & UPA had no hesitation in compromising with national interests. Strategy was nowhere in sight in last 10 years. stan will face a great deal of problem because of havinglearnt wrong lessons from UPA handling of issues;alas the same lessons will not be of any benefit.
        1. B
          Oct 8, 2014 at 11:17 pm
          Antony's record as chief minister of Kerala in the late 70s and a Congress politician validates his lackluster record as defense minister. One hopes Modi will change course and make India think, plan, and act like a world power. One can recall the not-so-reuring look in the face of prime minister Manmohan Singh, when in 2006 in New Delhi,US president George Bush put his hand on his shoulder and said you are a'world power'. India needs to come out its "political correctness" and engage openly with countries like Israel to modernize its defense capabilities and strategic thinking. It is a sad truth that in spite of India's staunch support for the Arab/Middle east nations and their causes (obviously for vote bank politics), they vote and act against India in most world bodies and other forums most of the times.
          1. B
            Oct 8, 2014 at 9:32 am
            Every aspect of defense suffered during period of Mr Antony as Defence Minister. Whether in matters of procurement of weapons, decisions on policy matters etc, he was most reluctant person to take any clear decision. It put India 10 years behind the Target in deference preparedness. New Govt. has to make up for the time lost.
            1. G
              Oct 8, 2014 at 6:01 am
              As I have written before, this author knows about what he is talking about and we certainly need more columnists like him. I really enjoy reading Mr Raja Mohan's articles because they educate me about various aspects of India's foreign policy. Thank you.
              1. H
                Oct 8, 2014 at 6:24 am
                It is not easy to fool outside world, you have to be strong enough from within to do that. By creating uncertainty at home you cannot win the world nor economically or politically. If you want to be strong then you have to come out of divisive politics at home. Otherwiseyou may get in trap, which is invisible now but it will not be possible for us to come out of that once it become visible.
                1. H
                  Hai Nguyen
                  Oct 8, 2014 at 3:45 pm
                  In few short months, PM Modi showed all the right moves consolidate Indian positions within Asia and now with the US. He appears to fully explore the national diplomatic, economic and defense potentials as well as firming up stand against Chinese aggressions. Global communities are pleasantly surprised but anxiously, awaiting sustained consistency and even more risk-taking acts, deserving of the real Asian power.
                  1. P
                    Oct 9, 2014 at 2:04 am
                    antony has consistently destro our maritime capacity. he kept himself less informed about the dangers of his negligence like his boss MA(U)N(I) MOHAN SINGH
                    1. R
                      Ramesh Grover
                      Oct 8, 2014 at 7:58 am
                      The write up is apt. If one waits for everything to be right before one acts, one waits for a dooms day. Life which includes international diplomacy is a movement wherein pragmatism , learning as one goes along, acting, and being ever ready to change go hand in hand.
                      1. S
                        Oct 8, 2014 at 8:56 am
                        India US defence partnership is good for us. US has superior technology.
                        1. K
                          Oct 8, 2014 at 12:52 pm
                          Antony was ably isted by his cohorts in the MEA and NSA in undermining India's National Security Interests. Together with Shivshankar Menon, Nirupama Rao and Ranjan Mathai, Antony ensured the India developed structural weaknesses that would leave it vulnerable not only to China, but also to stan. An investigation into the policy making that developed under this minister and the high ranking officials is overdue.
                          1. V
                            Vikram Kumar
                            Oct 8, 2014 at 7:33 am
                            Just goes to show how much damage the UPA government did to India. Congress politicians from Kerala are extremely ideology-driven and do not think anything of being openly hostile to the country itself. Look what they are doing to Shashi Tharoor. He is far more intelligent than any of them; he can see what is good for the country, and he has an independent streak. They don't like this at all.
                            1. V
                              Vikram Kumar
                              Oct 8, 2014 at 8:17 am
                              The UPA government was very damaging to the strategic interests of India. Mr. AK Antony from Kerala was obviously upholding the old Congress tradition of Muslim appeat even disregarding national interest. How was he allowed to get away with so much sheer idiocy?
                              1. W
                                Will Osuna
                                Oct 13, 2014 at 4:19 am
                                If India's navy could only stop ordering junk from Russia.
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