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 an Indian Prime Minister to Mongolia — is the latest Indian attempt to turn the tables and show that it can play the same game in China’s backyard as China does in India’s, albeit on a more modest scale befitting its weaker military and an economy one-fifth the size of China’s.
Modi not only emphasized defense co-operation, upgraded Mongolia to a “strategic partner”, 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 Maldives and Sri Lanka.”
It is no accident, then, that Mr Modi 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 to quickly rebuild India’s frayed relations with its south Asian neighbours, and where possible he exploited common Buddhism and Hinduism (both of which originated in India) as a cultural calling card.
He 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.
Phase two of India’s strategy has been to engage with global and Pacific powers, including neighboring 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.
(British Financial Times, May 19 “India plays soft power game in China’s backyard” by Victor Mallet)