May 19 article from The Financial Times, Original title: India plays soft power game in China’s backyard.
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, was in distant Mongolia this week trying his hand at archery, playing a traditional fiddle and receiving a racehorse as a gift. Why did he do this? 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 neighbors.
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, although India does it on a more modest scale which is consistent with India‘s weaker army and economy.
Mr Modi not only emphasized defense co-operation, upgraded Mongolia to a “strategic partner” and praised Mongolia as the “new bright light of democracy” in the world, but also implicitly linked Mongolia to India and the US and distancing them from authoritarian communist China. Brahma Chellaney, Strategic Studies Professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi., says “This is counter-containment. Modi is repaying Beijing in the same coin. Remember Chinese president Xi Jinping came to India after visiting the Maldives and Sri Lanka.”
It is no accident then, that Mr Modi is combining his landmark trip to China with visits to Mongolia and South Korea, another of China’s near neighbors. “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 neighbors, and where possible he exploited common adherence to Buddhism and Hinduism as a cultural card. He chose the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan as his first foreign destination as prime minister. Then 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 neighbours of 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. (Author is Victor Mallet)