East Asia Compass

Looking Northeast: A Foreign Policy Agenda for the New Government

02 Jun, 2014    ·   4484

Prof Sandip Kumar Mishra envisages a more proactive Indian role in the region

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi started his term with a bold and positive move to invite all the SAARC leaders to his inaugural ceremony. These are positive vibes, and it would be great if the new government is able to achieve a breakthrough in the problematic quagmire of South Asia. Equally important would be the Modi administration’s approach towards Northeast Asia, which includes China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea. It is interesting that Modi has not been a prisoner of the stance he took when he was in opposition and during his election campaign. He gave several sharp comments about China during his election campaign and it is good that he has shown a different outlook and approach after his inaugural.

China is also probably anxious to know more about his real position. On 29 May, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang made a phone call to Modi to congratulate him and express China’s desire to establish a robust partnership with the new government. It was an important move and Modi responded positively by bringing in civilisational links between the two countries. He mentioned the seventh century Chinese scholar Hiuen Tsang’s visit to his village Vadnagar. Apart from the phone call, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is expected to visit India in the second week of June. The Chinese President Xi Jinping is also supposed to visit in the later part of 2014. The Indian approach towards China and vice versa is going to be one of the most important variables in the emerging Asian economic and security architecture.

There are many thorny bilateral issues between the two countries, however, there are also many important issues on which both countries could enrich and help each other. The opportunities for bilateral trade must definitely be articulated and widened. In addition, these bilateral relations are also important for the regional calculus. China’s relations with Japan are quite bitter after the election of Shinzo Abe, and there are suggestions that China has become more assertive in regional politics in recent years. Chinese behaviour in the South China and East China Seas are quite instructive in this regard. It would be interesting to see how New Delhi takes up a stand on these bilateral and regional issues.

Modi has a strong personal fan in the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It is reported that Abe sent a warm congratulatory note to Modi and expressed his desire to work with India. Personal relations apart, India has been able to forge a strong multifaceted partnership with Japan in recent times, and to carry forward the momentum and strengthen ties between the two countries more profoundly would not be a big challenge. However, bilateral relations between India and Japan would also have to take into account developments in Japan-China relations. It would be a challenge for the new government in India to coordinate its foreign policy towards China and Japan. India needs to bring in a constructive but restrained and careful intervention in the China-Japan rivalry and work for a multipolar, inclusive, rule-based Asian security and economic architecture. This would not be an easy task for the new government.

Japan recently concluded an agreement with North Korea for a joint investigation of the Japanese abductees, and this was seen as a Japanese step to move out of its current isolation in regional politics. Shinzo Abe’s aggressive postures have not been appreciated by both China and South Korea. By reaching out to North Korea, Japan is taking a dangerous plunge, which would derail the collective sanctions put on Pyongyang because of its nuclear and missile programmes and human rights violations. The move might further distance South Korea and China from Japan, and the emerging scenario would be a big challenge for the new Indian government. India enjoys good relations with South Korea; President Park Geun-hye visited India in January 2014 to further consolidate and diversify India-South Korea cooperation. Any extra leaning towards Japan would certainly not send a positive message to South Korea.

Instead of bilateral policies, India needs to evolve a well-coordinated policy for the region. The policy also needs to take into account North Korea and its nuclear and missile programmes. India has enjoyed a low-key but sustained relationship with North Korea and there are expectations that India would play a more active and constructive role in reaching out to North Korea. During her visit to India, the South Korean President Park Geun-hye expressed her desire for an Indian role in inter-Korea relations.

India has emerged as an important player in Asia and it would be a litmus test to see how India conducts itself in Northeast Asia. India’s Look East Policy has moved from phase-one to phase-two by bringing in more issues and countries. India now needs to implement the next phase of the Look East Policy, which would introduce innovative and constructive elements in regional politics and be a boon for both India and the region.