Shangri-La dialogue

One can excuse India for not sending its official representative to the famous Shangri-La Dialogue, held annually in the last week of May in Singapore, as the new Indian government had just taken birth and it would have required time for the new foreign policy managers to frame a stand on any issue likely to emerge during the Conference.

This is the most watched security gathering where world leaders issue quotable quotes on burning issues of the time. But the UPA government had left a legacy of ignoring the annual Shangri-La congregation of world’s strategists and security policy makers in recent years.

If the previous AK Antony led Ministry of Defence did not rise to the challenge of meeting face to face with all the leading security interlocutors of the world on one single forum, one can certainly fault the National Security Advisor of the day for remaining oblivious of a very important strategic gathering not very far from the remote Indian maritime territory of Andaman and Nicobar.  

The Shangri-La Dialogue perhaps for the first time converted into an open duel between US and China but India remained a mute spectator from far off New Delhi, where the foreign policy honchos were too busy taking calls from the world leaders, from Obama to Li Ke  Qiang.

India’s stand

However if we go by the previous quotes of the Manmohan Singh led Indian foreign policy establishment on the need to maintain the tranquility of the placid waters of the South China Sea, India would certainly emerge to be politically siding with the South East Asian partners where the US led western leaders launched a scathing attack on China for acting unilaterally and disturbing the peace in the region.

The US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel accused China of taking disturbing unilateral action asserting its territorial claims in South China Sea.  On the other hand any Indian leader would have found a cozy atmosphere in Shangri-La where from Vietnam to Singapore and US to Japan talked of their priorities for India.

Perhaps Indian foreign policy establishment was still flipping through the South China Sea and Shangri-La files and hence preferred to remain silent on the spat between Chinese military General and US Defence Secretary in Singapore.

However the Modi government did mark its notional presence through its party’s foreign affairs cell in-charge Tarun Vijay, whose renderings may give some insight on the emerging foreign policy priorities of the new Modi government. Considering its more nationalistic stand on most of the issues in its relations with its neighbors, one would have expected the Bhartiya Janata Party representative to take stronger stand on the Chinese aggressiveness in South China Sea.

The UPA government has been stating all the time without naming China that   countries must respect the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. And just when the Chinese warships had threatened the Vietnamese ships near the Paracel islands, India had expressed its concern after which the Chinese foreign ministry lost no time in retorting that there was no need for India to worry.

It appeared that this year’s Shangri-La dialogue was organized in the backdrop of the Sino-Japanese spat over the emerging tensions in the Senkaku islands and the Sino-Vietnamese tension over the Paracel islands, where China has set up its oil rig in the EEZ of Vietnam.

China-Philippines tension has also drawn world’s attention. Moreover the Chinese move last year to set up an Air Defence Identification Zone overc East China Sea has also irked the East Asian powers and the South East Asian countries whose freedom of air and maritime movements will be restricted.

Freedom of navigation

Even India has taken a very independent and bold stand and has issued very forthright statement on the need to maintain freedom of navigation in the South China  in accordance with the  International Law of the Sea. More than half of India’s maritime trade is conducted via South China Sea and any move by China to expand its maritime territory in the South and East China Sea will restrict Indian maritime movements. In fact the way China is gradually expanding its zone of influence in the maritime area near Chinese coastal waters has caused concern in Indian security establishment.

 In view of India’s fears over Chinese aggressive actions in the South China Sea, India needs to be more vocal. However, in the emerging strategic calculus in the pacific region China is sending very positive signals to the new Narendra Modi led Indian government. If China sends feelers to the new Indian government that they are eager to resolve the boundary and territorial issue, India cannot ignore these moves from China.

Probably the geo political compulsion of China is encouraging the Chinese leadership to mend fences with India.  The Chinese know very well that if India continue to side with the Americans and the Japanese in the emerging security scenario, China will be isolated. Hence there is an eagerness on the part of China to bring India in its lap.

Shangri-La dialogue, the annual gathering of defence ministers, diplomats and security experts, was attended by the Japanese Prime Minister  Shinzo Abe , the American Defence Secretary Chuck Hegel and other regional leaders including the Vietnamese Defence minister Phung Quang Thanh. However the Chinese side was represented by the deputy Chief of the PLA general staff Wang Guanzhong and Fu Ying the Chairwoman of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee.

The meet began with the offensive statements of the Chinese leader Fu Ying who lambasted Japan and Philippines for their conduct in separate territorial disputes with China. On the other hand  the American Defence Secretary and the Japanese PM took note of the emergence of the Narendra Modi led new government in India and the desire to have strong relationship with the new Indian government. The Chinese must have taken note of the American and Japanese overtures to India, who in fact had by that time also decided to send its Foreign minister Wang Yi to New Delhi in early week of June.

Organized by the London based International Institute of Strategic Studies, the Shangri-La Dialogue has become a must attend event, but absence of any prominent leader from India was felt by India’s interlocutors.

This event provides the occasion to have bilateral interactions and meetings and send signals to rival nations of the countries standing among the regional and international players. But India was represented by a nondescript personality whose murmurs during the Dialogue went unnoticed even by Indian media.

The head of the foreign policy cell of the BJP Mr Tarun Vijay, during his presentation, talked about India’s desire to strengthen relations with all three major regional players Japan, Korea and China, who interestingly are not in good terms with each other.

So it would be interesting to see how the new Modi government balances its relations with all the three while steering clear out of the rivalries between them. Not only that if India continues to maintain its previous strong postures on South China Sea about the need to maintain freedom of navigation, the Chinese are not going to take them lightly as they have already warned India not to worry about the South China Sea, though Tarun Vijay asserted, “we want to contribute very solidly in the peace and stability in Asia Pacific”.