China’s trade with the ASEAN na­tions, com­pared with In­dia’s $60 bil­lion

India Today - - UPFRONT -

is al­ready at work on a bul­let train from Kun­ming that con­nects Bangkok and Sin­ga­pore.) Per­haps the big­gest shift in the Modi gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach is its re­al­is­tic ap­praisal of the lim­i­ta­tions of act­ing alone in ‘Act­ing East’. Delhi no longer ap­pears shy— and less mind­ful of China’s sen­si­tiv­i­ties—in lean­ing over to­wards Tokyo and Wash­ing­ton in its en­gage­ment with the re­gion.

This ap­pears log­i­cal. When ASEAN’s link­ages with Ja­pan and the US are con­sid­ered, the re­gion looks far less de­pen­dent on China. The re­gion’s to­tal trade with In­dia, Ja­pan ($239 bil­lion) and the US ($212 bil­lion) com­bined is one-and-a-half times its com­merce with China. The Don­ald Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, for its part, has more promi­nently em­pha­sised In­dia as a vi­tal part­ner in the re­gion, de­scrib­ing its Asia pol­icy as em­pha­sis­ing “a free and open Indo-Pa­cific re­gion”, a broader con­cep­tion than Barack Obama’s ‘Asia pivot’. In Manila, the three coun­tries and Aus­tralia will hold their first meet­ing since 2007, when the ‘quadri­lat­eral’ di­a­logue was short-lived in the face of strong Chi­nese op­po­si­tion. The jury is out on whether this close­ness will trans­late into demon­stra­ble ac­tion in se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion or in pro­vid­ing an eco­nomic al­ter­na­tive to China.

This shift is be­ing closely watched in Bei­jing. Xi Jin­ping’s first term saw Bei­jing have a free run. It suc­cess­fully bol­stered its mil­i­tary pres­ence in the South China Sea with ‘is­land build­ing’ ac­tiv­i­ties, and thwarted a uni­fied ASEAN re­sponse with nim­ble diplo­macy. It has turned around ties with the Philip­pines and healed a rift with Viet­nam, all the while keep­ing its wal­let open. Trump, mean­while, with­drew from the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship deal—the big­gest ef­fort yet to counter China’s eco­nomic dom­i­nance—with one of his first acts in of­fice.

Many in Bei­jing be­lieve Trump will be an un­re­li­able part­ner for In­dia. “I see noth­ing com­ing from Trump’s Indo-Pa­cific strat­egy,” says lead­ing strate­gist Shen Dingli. “The Indo-Pa­cific has al­ways been free and open. Oceans can’t be di­vided. China is an In­dian Ocean player, and the In­dian Ocean doesn’t be­long to any­one—to China, In­dia or the US. Obama’s work will be un­done by Trump, and all Trump is do­ing will be un­done by his suc­ces­sor. By wast­ing Amer­i­can time, en­ergy and re­sources, they are suc­cess­fully bring­ing China to the top of the world.”

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