To understand and evaluate the outcomes of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s East Asian tour of China, Mongolia and South Korea, it would be useful to separate them into at least three domains: popular, economic, and security-strategic.
Overall, it can be said that Modi was able to create sufficient public attention on his visit to China. This may not appear important but by connecting India and China through various mediums such as Twitter, a momentum for people-to-people exchange between the two neighbours could be created. India and China both are rising powers in Asia and have big information as well as perception gaps - these gestures cannot therefore be called superficial. In Mongolia, which no other Indian PM has officially visited before, Modi’s first stop was Gandan Monastery where he gifted a Bodhi Tree. He talked about India and Mongolia’s historical linkages and addressed the Mongolian parliament, which was a first. He also talked about Buddhism and democracy as two important connectors between the two countries. In South Korea also, Modi visited the War Memorial and remembered the Indian soldiers who helped South Korea during the Korean War and referred to other historical connections. His visit to South Korea got remarkable coverage in the local media.
On the economic front, India and China signed 12 different agreements along with a promise of US$20 billion Chinese investment in India. India has been looking at possible investors for its infrastructure sector, which needs around US$1 trillion. China has a foreign reserve of around US$4 trillion, and during his visit to China, Modi tried to communicate India’s needs and opportunities for Chinese investments in a win-win dynamic. Modi also raised the issue of the imbalance in India-China bilateral trade which has reached around US$48 billion and which must be corrected. India is an eager partner in the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and looks forward to benefitting from this Chinese initiative.
India and China realise that the economic opportunities are immense and must be realised. Modi’s visit to China thus was largely in line with this understanding and trajectory. His visit underlined that economic cooperation must increase even if both countries are not able to reach consensus on political and security issues. During his Mongolia trip also, Modi’s visit resulted in several agreements in the economic, trade, transport, highways and energy sectors. He laid the foundation for an Information Technology Centre in Mongolia and gifted a Bhabhatron to the National Cancer Centre of Mongolia. Cooperation in the minerals sector was also sought; this includes cooking coal, copper, rare earths and uranium. The economic outcomes of Modi’s Mongolia visit may not look very impressive quantitatively, but they are definitely strategic. India, during Modi’s trip to South Korea, signed 7 agreements along with other several other proposals to connect economic and trade institutions of both countries. South Korea promised to invest around US$10 billion in India and both countries are going to revise their Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) by next year. Modi took special interest in South Korea’s shipbuilding sector and visited a Hyundai plant in Ulsan. Modi appears to be convinced that the role of South Korea would be crucial in India’s ‘Make in India’ project and this visit was also an attempt to display India’s commitment to it.
The third set of issues are related to security and strategy. In China, Modi had little success, though many observers were expecting ‘historic’ steps. India shares a long and disputed border with China and but nothing significant emerged on this front. Several other issues such as Chinese trade routes proposed under the One Belt One Route (OBOR) project, growing proximity between China and Pakistan and regional issues such as the South China Sea were not taken up during the visit. Modi’s Arunachal Pradesh visit before the China trip, his indirect reference to China during his Japan visit in 2014 and India’s common vision document with the US for the Asia-Pacific, there have been clear indications that there is little possibility of improvement in this area between the two countries. There are allegations that Modi’s diplomacy vis-à-vis China in particular and East Asia in general have been too loud and thus his visit to Mongolia along with China was given a special context by some observers. It is said that Modi is interested in forging a closer partnership with Mongolia on strategic issues and his visit brought out this dimension of India’s objective. On the security and strategic partnership front, Modi’s visit to South Korea can be considered quite successful. He raised the bilateral relationship to the ‘special strategic partnership’ level, with the provision of annual summit meets between the respective leaders and annual 2-2 meetings between the foreign and defence ministers. That the same provisions that are present in the India-Japan relationship have been incorporated into the India-South Korea relationship would be to the latter’s satisfaction.
Overall, it seems that Modi’s three-nation tour in East Asia has been successful in connecting their historic and popular bonds with India as well as forging more dynamic economic cooperation. The energy invested in the visits should hopefully bear positive results in the future. However, from the security and strategic points of view, only his South Korea visit might be called a success. Another important aspect of these visits are going to be the follow-ups, which are equally if not more important to realise these agreements. It would be interesting to see how India is going to implement these economic partnerships and whether they are going to have a spill-over effect in the security and strategic domains.