The Shangri-La dialogue hosted annually by the Institute of Strategic Studies, London, is a major event in Singapore. Though it has, in recent years, become something of a China versus US event, it is a place where defence ministers, security wonks and media gather, an ideal place to make a statement, signal an intent or a new policy.
By that measure, to go by the remarks of
our defence minister Manohar Parrikar at the forum, the opportunity was
sadly wasted. For years, India has avoided sending a senior figure to
the dialogue. This was based on prudence and a desire to steer clear
from the US-China stand-off. But after deciding to send a senior
minister, a member of the Cabinet Committee on Security, the government
did not give him much to say from a platform from where he could have
credibly spelt out India’s military posture in the Indo-Pacific.
The Modi government bills itself as being a departure from the past,
one which revels in wading into the thick of foreign affairs, often even
jettisoning protocol to make a point. It did not shy away from telling
Beijing (as Modi did last year) that Sino-Indian relations were being
hampered by poor choices being made by China (read Pakistan).
The Parrikar speech was all over the place. Having placed territorial
disputes as number one in his list of security challenges in the
region, Parrikar promptly declared that number two — terrorism —
remained “the foremost challenge to our region.” If he was indeed
seeking to limit himself geographically to the South-east Asian region,
he should have done his homework — terrorism is not a major issue there,
though there have been incidents in the past and there is a historical
Islamist insurgency in southern Philippines. However, there is concern
that in the Islamic State could emerge as a challenge in the coming
years. But it is not as though Parrikar offered any solutions here.
Number three — the maritime domain — the minister noted was the one
that he saw “most clearly.” Having spoken of the Malacca and vulnerable
waterways, he jumped to the Mumbai attack and Somalian piracy, which by
any measure have taken place through or on the high seas, not waterways.
The Minister did spell out the traditional Indian stand of not taking
sides in the South China Seas disputes and upholding the freedom of
navigation and overflight in accordance with international law,
especially the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).
The minister’s suggestion was on the need for “collective action and
cooperation” to deal with the situation. Interestingly, in recognising,
as he did “that security in Asia is primarily the responsibility of the
Asians”, he sounded more like a Chinese official than one whose
government had last year made certain commitments to the US through a
Joint Strategic Vision for Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean to “develop
a roadmap… to better respond to diplomatic, economic and security
challenges in the region.”
Parrikar’s ambivalence, or to be more accurate confusion, stems
from a well-considered Indian policy of using the South China Sea to
occasionally needle Beijing, but steering clear of any deeper
commitments which could needlessly involve us in a quagmire in a region
far from where our primary security interests lie.
Nevertheless, a government that says it Acts East could have been
much more forceful in articulating a new and nuanced point of view just
as US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter did. Carter toned down his
China bashing of last year’s Shangri-La, where he attacked China’s
militarisation of the South China Sea. This year, speaking on the eve of
the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing which began on
Monday, he called on all parties to join a “principled security
network,” even though he did not quite spell out what that meant. His
talk of China isolating itself because of its behaviour lacked
credibility, given the deep economic ties Beijing has with the region
and with the US and Japan.
Actually, many US allies are now wondering how to get US to ratify
UNCLOS. The US has used international law as a weapon to belabour China,
but it has itself not ratified that key instrument of maritime
international law. The US claims to observe it, but that is not quite
the same thing. President Obama has recently once again appealed to the
US Senate to ratify the UNCLOS, but that is not likely to happen.
The second issue the US has with its allies is that it is going soft
on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Here again, Obama lacks the time
to push for it, and it is far from clear whether his successors will.
Meanwhile, the overwhelming feeling is that all sides are talking
past each other in the South China Sea isssue. The arbitration council
decision on the Philippines case is likely to trigger consequences we
cannot easily predict.
Mid Day June 7, 2016