To those who wonder why Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, was in distant Mongolia this week trying his hand at archery, playing a traditional fiddle and receiving the gift of a racehorse called Kanthaka (after Buddha’s mount), the short answer is: China.
Just as a resurgent China fears containment and encirclement by the US and its Asian allies, so New Delhi bristles at the rapid extension of China’s military and economic influence to the Indian Ocean and to India’s neighbours in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal.
Mr Modi’s trip to Ulan Bator — the first official visit by any Indian prime minister to Mongolia — is the latest Indian attempt to turn the tables and show that it can play the same games in China’s backyard as China does in India’s, albeit on a more modest scale befitting its weaker army and an economy one-fifth the size.
India, Mr Modi insisted, was a “third neighbour” of Mongolia (which lies between China and Russia), while Mongolia was an integral part of India’s “Act East” policy. He not only emphasised defence co-operation, upgraded Mongolia to a “strategic partner” and said India would help the country’s armed forces with cybersecurity, but also praised Mongolia as the “new bright light of democracy” in the world, implicitly linking his hosts to India and the US and distancing them from authoritarian communist China.
“This is counter-containment,” says Brahma Chellaney, strategic studies professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. “Modi is repaying [Chinese president] Xi Jinping in the same coin. Remember he [Xi] came to India after visiting the Maldives and Sri Lanka.”
It is no accident, then, that Mr Modi, who has been unexpectedly active on the foreign policy front in his first year in office, is combining his landmark trip to China this month with visits to Mongolia and South Korea, another of China’s near neighbours where he arrived on Monday.
“South Korea is part of the same game,” says Mr Chellaney. “India’s trying to augment its limited power by joining hands with countries around China’s periphery.”
The first phase of Mr Modi’s foreign policy campaign was quickly to rebuild India’s frayed relations with its south Asian neighbours, and where possible he exploited common adherence to Buddhism and Hinduism (both of which originated in India) as a cultural calling card. He invited all the leaders (including — to Beijing’s fury — the Tibetan prime minister in exile) to his inauguration in New Delhi a year ago and chose the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan as his first foreign destination as prime minister.
He went on to visit Nepal, Myanmar, Mauritius and Sri Lanka — where Beijing’s influence and port visits by Chinese submarines had worried the Indian security establishment and galvanised discreet Indian support for the coalition that defeated the pro-China government of Mahinda Rajapaksa in a January election. Mr Modi is expected soon in Dhaka to seal a long-awaited agreement on realigning the India-Bangladesh border.
Only India’s post-1947 enemy and awkward neighbour Pakistan — remarkable for being simultaneously a client state of Saudi Arabia, the US and China — has been excluded from Mr Modi’s latest advances.
Phase two of India’s strategy has been to engage with global and Pacific powers, including neighbouring China, of course, but also nations such as Japan and the US that share Indian concerns about Beijing’s maritime and territorial ambitions from the western Himalayas to the East China Sea.
Mr Modi’s foray to Ulan Bator and Seoul shows he is well into the third phase: bringing the diplomatic tussle between the two most populous countries in the world to China’s own doorstep.
Chinese policy makers responded sourly to India’s offer of naval ships to Vietnam last year and to the US-India joint statement demanding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. They will not have failed to notice Mr Modi’s newfound fascination with the musical instruments, horses and bows and arrows of the Mongolian steppe.
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