Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Sep 12, 2016
In Laos, some of the major themes highlighted by Modi included, unified and coordinated fight against terrorism, radicalisation and extreme violence.
PM Modi in Laos — Engaging East Asia

Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in the 11th East Asia and 14th India-ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos on September 7 and 8, 2016. This was Modi’s fourth substantive tour to the South-East Asian region since he assumed office in May, 2014. Out of the three earlier visits, two were in connection with the East Asia and India-ASEAN Summits and one was to Vietnam earlier this month en route to Hangzhou, China for the G20 Summit. His Vietnam tour which in addition to the bilateral content was also designed to send a subtle message to China, witnessed the signature of a slew of 12 Agreements to further enhance and strengthen ties in diverse areas.

In Vientiane, Modi took off from where he had left in Hangzhou, China for the G20 Summit. He had inter alia suggested to China that the issue of terrorism should not be viewed through the prism of politics. In the G20 plenary session, Modi said that countries which support and fund terrorism should be isolated and sanctioned by the world community rather than being rewarded. Without mentioning Pakistan by name, Modi said that a single country in South Asia is spreading terror in India and the region.

In Laos, some of the major themes highlighted by Modi in his Presentations at the East Asia and India-ASEAN Summits as well as in his bilateral meetings with several world leaders included unified and coordinated fight against terrorism, radicalisation and extreme violence.

Timing of the Summit was crucial as it came in wake of Award by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague on complaint of Philippines against activities and claims by China in the South China Sea (SCS). Verdict of PCA was comprehensively against China leading China to indulge in bellicose and intimidatory statements and actions. Change of leadership in Philippines from the responsible and thoughtful Benigno Aquino to the maverick and mercurial Duterte increased unpredictability and complicated matters. In addition to Philippines (and Taiwan), China is mired on opposite side in this contentious dispute with Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei over ownership, freedom of navigation and use of resources in SCS.

Regarding India's interests in this issue, SCS is a busy waterway through which 50% of India’s foreign trade passes. India is also engaged in exploration at the invitation of Vietnam in the latter's Exclusive Economic Zone for undersea deposits of oil and gas. India and several other countries including USA have advocated freedom of navigation and overflights, maritime security, full compliance with international laws particularly the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), peaceful resolution of the dispute and expeditious framing of Code of Conduct in SCS.

Obama put the dispute at the centre of Summit deliberations when he said that the  July 12 PCA ruling against China was binding and "helped to clarify maritime rights in the region." He acknowledged that the PCA verdict had raised tensions but said that it was necessary to discuss how to move forward, lower strains, ''promote diplomacy and regional stability.'' Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, also expressed concern about ''China's increasing muscular claims to disputed maritime territory'' and the ''continuing attempts to change unilaterally the status quo in the East and South China Sea."

The draft final communique has sought to play down the SCS issue with a mild rebuke for China which can be seen as some sort of victory for it. No reference is made to the 12th July PCA ruling although concern over recent developments in the South China Sea, respect for international laws, freedom of navigation and over flights and peaceful settlement of dispute are included in the Statement. The tepid reference to the issue would be a matter of some satisfaction for China.

After the Summit China testily remarked that outsiders — a clear reference to USA — should stay out of the dispute and allow the concerned parties to resolve it through dialogue. USA immediately clarified that its only interest is to ensure freedom of navigation and over flights and compliance with and respect for relevant international laws on the issue.

According to an unnamed US administration official, China pulled out all stops to block any reference to the words "recent activities," ''serious concern," ''reclamation," ''militarisation," ''loss of trust" and "need to respect legal processes," but failed as all these phrases find mention in the statement. Though Beijing was unable to get its allies in ASEAN to block the statement, they did manage to avoid an explicit reference to the tribunal's 12th July ruling which the Philippines was willing to concede.

President Duterte had sent feelers for improving relations with China since he took office in June, 2016. He however raised the pitch at the Summit by claiming that China was in the process of undertaking heavy construction activity on several islands and shoals in SCS.

During the India-ASEAN and East Asia Summits, Modi underscored the salience of India's Act East Policy and said that engagement of India with ASEAN is driven by common priorities, bringing peace, stability and prosperity to the region. He announced hosting a Commemorative Summit on “Shared Values, Common Destiny” in 2017 in India to mark the 25th anniversary of establishment of India’s dialogue partnership with ASEAN. Without naming either of the two neighbours of India, Modi upbraided both, first by targeting Beijing’s muscle-flexing in the South China Sea with a veiled criticism that "the threat or use of force to resolve disputes would complicate matters affecting peace and stability" and then hitting out at Islamabad by seeking "strongest action" against state-sponsors of terrorism. Stepping up his attack on Pakistan, he referred to it as a country "whose competitive advantage rests solely in producing and exporting terrorism." He declared that time had "come for us to stop this global exporter of terror."

In recent weeks, India has intensified its criticism of Pakistan, holding it responsible for inciting protests in Kashmir, while ties with China have been tense over Beijing’s blocking of New Delhi’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and its "technical hold" on designating Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Azhar Masood as a terrorist by the UN.

In addition to participating in the two Summits, Prime Minister Modi utilized the opportunity to have bilateral meetings with several world leaders including President Obama, President of Korea, Prime Ministers of Japan and Laos, with a quick pull-aside with the Chinese Prime Minister, and State Counsellor and Foreign Minister of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi.

In their meeting, Obama reiterated US’ strong support for India’s NSG membership. They discussed priorities in bilateral strategic partnership including deepening civil nuclear cooperation, solar energy, innovation and combating climate change.  This was their eighth and possibly last official meeting since September, 2014, before Obama demits office in January, 2017.

In his consequential meeting with the de facto leader of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi, Modi assured her that India will always stand by Myanmar in its journey towards peace, security, reconciliation and development. It was the first meeting between the two leaders since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy came to power in Myanmar in March 2016. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had met her during her one day visit to Naypyidaw on 22nd August, 2016. Myanmar President U. Htin Kyaw paid a momentous visit to India in late August, his first visit abroad after assuming office. Suu Kyi will be visiting India for the BRICS-BIMSTEC Summit outreach meeting on 15 and 16 October in Goa.

In his meeting with South Korean President, both countries reviewed their bilateral strategic partnership which was upgraded to Special Strategic Partnership last year and discussed ways to boost cooperation in key areas including counter terrorism and maritime security in the region. They reviewed progress in negotiations to improve India-ROK Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) besides discussing the USD 10 billion financial package announced by South Korea for India's infrastructure development. Korean President appreciated the Korea Plus programme initiated by Modi and said it would lead to further investments in India by Korean firms.

Prime Minister Modi's participation in the two day East Asia and India-ASEAN Summits provided a valuable opportunity to forcefully articulate India's views and positions on regional and global developments and on issues of interest and concern to India. He used the occasion to engage in bilateral parleys with several strategic partners of India to establish rapport with these world leaders and advance India's agenda and interests. While no momentous or bold decisions might have been forthcoming from these regional and bilateral discussions, India's vital interests registered a huge advance.

The author is a former Indian ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia.

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