Even the most casual observer of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hectic schedule will be impressed by the renewed vigour he has brought to India’s diplomacy. Since taking office at the end of May, Modi has paid state visits to five countries (Nepal, Japan, the US, Australia and Fiji) and attended four summits (BRICS East Asia, G-20 and Saarc). While some may reasonably question whether Modi should be spending so much time jetting around the world while his bold economic reform plan needs his laser-like focus, the undeniable fact remains that Modi apparently is aware that India has much catching-up to do in competing with China for diplomatic influence in the Asia-Pacific.
By all accounts, China continues to enjoy a huge lead, despite its more recent setbacks in the region. Beijing began its diplomatic charm offensive in the late 1990s, taking advantage of the East Asian financial crisis and leveraging its growing economic muscle to strengthen trade links with its neighbours. Beijing’s efforts were generally considered clever and successful until 2010, when, for reasons that continue to puzzle China watchers, Chinese leaders opted for a far more confrontational regional diplomatic strategy, asserting territorial claims and taking unprecedented aggressive measures to intimidate neighbours (such as by declaring an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea).
Such muscle-flexing has boomeranged on Beijing. Most of its neighbours grew alarmed and, contrary to Beijing’s wishes, moved closer to Washington, which seized the opportunity to announce a “pivot” — the redeployment of US military capabilities and refocusing of American diplomatic attention to Asia.
Facing a concerted push-back by the US and its regional allies, China seems to be readjusting its Asian strategy. At the recent Apec summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a hardline nationalist leader vilified by China for the last two years. Although the meeting was awkward, it likely signified the beginning of a process of repairing badly damaged Sino-Japanese ties.
What is even more noticeable is Xi’s own energetic diplomatic offensive in Asia. Like Modi, Xi has also been burning a prodigious amount of aviation fuel. Indeed, he happened to be in the same neighbourhood this month as Modi — the south Pacific.
Judging by the trade and investment deals struck by Xi during his visit to Fiji and Australia two countries (China signed a free trade agreement with the latter), one may get the impression that it will be really difficult, if not impossible, for India to match Chinese influence in the region.
While this assessment is certainly true for the short term, it overlooks India’s enduring long-term advantages in raising its diplomatic profile in Asia. The most important and obvious factor in New Delhi’s favour is its strategic role as a regional counterweight to China and its good relations with nearly every country (except Pakistan). To be sure, most countries in the region will continue to rely on the US to balance against China and maintain Asia’s peace and stability. The value of having India as a dependable partner comes not from its military capabilities (which are nevertheless considerable), but from its diplomatic standing as a major regional power and its growing importance for the global economy and security.
The other advantage India will enjoy in coming decades is its greater economic potential. Based on its young population, dynamic private sector and growing technological sophistication, India will improve its economic competitiveness and increase its growth during a period when the Chinese economy is almost certain to decelerate and its labour costs will continue to spiral upwards.
The effective utilisation of these long-term advantages depends on the formulation and execution of a strategy that Modi and his advisors will need to have. In an ironic way, Modi may want to model his strategy by invoking the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s dictum: keep a low profile while growing your strength.
China has got where it is only after two decades of strategic patience and single-minded focus on domestic development. Deng, the geopolitical pragmatist, understood very well that a country’s diplomatic clout is based, first and foremost, on its capabilities. The only dependable source of generating these capabilities is economic development. Diplomatic gains can help a country speed up its economic growth, but relying on the goodwill of other countries is not a wise policy. Thus, in Deng’s formulation, foreign policy had to be placed at the service of domestic economic development. Deng’s immediate successor, Jiang Zemin, followed Deng’s dictum well and, in retrospect, managed China’s foreign policy skilfully, even from a position of relative weakness.
We should all applaud Modi’s energy and vision, but we must also urge him to take a page from China’s strategic playbook and copy it to achieve India’s long-term success, both at home and abroad.
The writer is professor of government and non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US