Back to seeking a multi-polar order

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers the keynote address at the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Edgar Su TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

In his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Friday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised India’s key role in the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region, a vast expanse that extends from the eastern shores of Africa to the west coast of the Americas. In addition to projecting India as a major Indo-Pacific player, Modi also sought to show that it is a stabilising force in the region. He laid out a positive Indian vision for the region. India does not see the Indo-Pacific as a “club of limited members,” he said. Rather, it was keen to work towards a “free, open, inclusive region, which embraces us all in a common pursuit of progress and prosperity”. If in the past four years, the Modi government’s foreign policy saw India tilt heavily towards the United States, with the prime minister ready to overcome the “hesitations of history” to join hands with Washington to contain China, that seems to be changing now. Following his ‘informal summits’ with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Wuhan and Russian President Vladimir Putin at Sochi, Modi seemed to have chosen to go to the Shangri-La Dialogue expressly to signal India’s return to an old desire — for a “strong multi-polar world order” — and stressed equivalence in India’s ties with the US, Russia and China, even avoiding any mention of the Quadrilateral Alliance.

In his speech, Modi referred to the multi-layered Sino-Indian relationship and said that Asia and the world’s future would be brighter if Beijing and Delhi worked together, mindful of
each other’s interests. Although he did not mention China by name in his call for a “rules-based order,” the need to ensure “equal access to common spaces on sea and in the air,” freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and so on, it was evident that he was referring to China’s aggressive and highly controversial role in the South China Seas dispute. Likewise, his drawing attention to countries imposing “impossible burdens of debt” on smaller nations was aimed at China and its Belt and Road Initiative, which is leaving several countries, including India’s neighbours such as Sri Lanka, in crippling debt.

It is evident that after having tried to move closer to the US and having got little out of that outreach over the past four years, Modi is now emphasising the merits of a multi-polar world. The question is, whether this is a durable return to a long-held Indian position, based on an assessment of evolving global politics, or is it a tactical shift as a result of personal diplomacy undertaken with an eye to ensuring that China does not queer the pitch as the 2019 general elections approach as many suspect. China “noted his positive remarks”.  

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