Will the dragon and elephant dance together?

By Vidyadharan MP

 

Can we all in Asia come together, settling our differences peacefully, and bring back the past glory? We all should strive for achieving this atmosphere to bring peace and prosperity to all people and countries.

This was the message Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore recently. He was the first Indian prime minister to address the Shangri-La, one of the top strategic dialogues, along with the Raisina Dialogue organised in New Delhi. While the Shangri-La is more than a decade old, the Raisina Dialogue has become only three-year old.

Modi was clear in reimaging a new Asia, where there is peace and prosperity all around. And also he was clear that to achieve this, both India and China should come together, work closely so that not only both these countries but other nations too can benefit from their cooperation and economic prosperity.

Modi is absolutely right in expressing this thought process. Without cooperation between India and China, the two major economies of the continent, there would be chaos and tension galore. We saw it as the relations between the nations deteriorated following border incursions and the Doklam standoff which continued for 73 days. The fight between the two Asian giants also put smaller countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh in tension. As China increased its cooperation with these countries using its bulging economic muscle, India looked at the economic cooperation suspiciously, fearing the Dragon will capture strategic assets in these countries.

In fact, at the Raisina Dialogue also, leaders from the region, like Chandrika Kumaratunga  (Sri Lanka), Hamid Karzai (Afghanistan) and others had expressed the need for better relations between India and China at the inaugural of the first Raisina Dialogue, so that their countries can make use of the economic strengths of both nations.

Hence, Modi’s message of reimagining Asia with a cooperative India and China should send relief to these small countries, which were getting strangulated in the economic and strategic contest between the Dragon and Elephant. These countries will be as happy as India and China if Dragon and Elephant dance together.

This kind of thought could have been impossible, may be a little more than a year ago. Then, India was feeling cosy sitting firmly on the bench with the United States. Modi and Obama had one of the best working and personal relations. That time, nobody could have imagined India would ever get into the rival camp of Russia and China.

But one mistake by the American people seems to have changed the fate of US supremacy. President Trump has taken the US into isolation, with even allies getting nervous and disappointed with each of his actions. The latest action is the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal which Obama and other European nations had worked out with support from Russia.

Trump’s many decisions are going against Indian interests too. His visa policy, withdrawal from the Trans Atlantic treaty, Iran deal, sanctions on Russia and trade protectionism will hit India badly. No wonder, Modi thought it is the right time to virtually say good-bye to Trump. Also, Modi and Trump failed to develop the kind of relations he had with Obama or former PM Manmohan Singh with President George Bush.

Anyway, it is good for the people of Asia, who could have been stifled if India continued in the US camp. The US would have used India to help in its China containment policy, for which it came up with the Asia pivot (during the Obama period) and now the Indo-Pacific strategy. This would have surely led to fierce India-China competition, affecting other countries as well.

In a way, Trump’s policies could help build the Asian century. A realignment between India, Russia and China could herald wonders in the region. Such an alignment could bring down drastically tensions in South Asia, South East Asia as well as East Asia. With countries like Iran, Pakistan and others also likely to come into this group, terrorism can be fought more effectively and may be helping to make Afghanistan much more stable and peaceful.

In fact, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had co-founded the Non-alignment movement in the then bipolar world, had foreseen the benefits of such a friendship. However, then Russia (USSR) and China had border issues, besides China being a poor country. His desire for India-China friendship ended when he was forced to fight a war with China’s invading army.

Now, the situation is seems to be better. Both nations are developing very fast and are expected to become the biggest economies in a couple of decades. Both are nuclear powers too. A long-lasting friendship between India and China can bring prosperity to the entire region.

So, Modi is reimagining a new Asia. He is not alone. He had a fruitful informal summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April in Wuhan. They seem to have made up a lot of distance. Trust seems to be returning between the two tall and powerful leaders of Asia.

In Modi’s words, “In April, a two-day informal Summit with President Xi helped us cement our understanding that strong and stable relations between our two nations are an important factor for global peace and progress. I firmly believe that, Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other’s interests”. He also said that no other relationship of India has as many layers as our relations with China. “We are the world’s two most populous countries and among the fastest growing major economies. Our cooperation is expanding. Trade is growing. And, we have displayed maturity and wisdom in managing issues and ensuring a peaceful border”.

Recently, Modi also had a successful informal summit with Russian President V. Putin, one of the best any Indian prime ministers had with a Russian leader. In Sochi, Modi and Putin developed almost the same kind of rapport like that of Modi and Obama. It was a rare occasion for Putin too. “President Putin and I shared our views on the need for a strong multi-polar world order for dealing with the challenges of our times,” Modi said at Shangri-La, though he also said that “India’s global strategic partnership with the United States has overcome the hesitations of history and continues to deepen across the extraordinary breadth of our relationship”.

The trio of Putin-Xi-Modi make a great group of shrewd, powerful and capable leaders. If they can bring the leaders of Japan and Korea on the same page, Asia’s journey could be a golden one – where all stakeholders would benefit a lot.

Modi is a good user of Indian Diaspora too. He has the ability to web together the people of the region with similarities in cultures. Indian influence is seen in many countries, including China and Japan, because of its place in Buddhism. Hindu religious influence is also seen many countries. Chinese civilisation and Indus Valley civilization are two of the oldest civilizations in the world. And India-China ties were also centuries old.

However, the question is will the Dragon and Elephant be able to dance together? And how long will they be able to sustain the duet? Can they bring back Asia’s old glory of knowledge and wealth?

For all these, the key word is TRUST. Once the trio develop this, all other things will fall in place, as the people of these countries share good relations and mutual respect.

 

(The writer is a senior journalist and additional director of communications of Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)                        

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