Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Asia-Pacific strategy launched over tea

It might have been the most significant tea party in recent times, with indications that an informal meeting between United States President Barak Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi over tea led to the issuing of a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific.

It had not been planned, but when the two leaders saw that their views on the way forward for the region, and especially on the rise of China, were nearly coincidental, they decided to round off Obama’s state visit to India by going public.

Nowhere was the reaction more apparent than in Beijing. China’s state-run media tends to play down initiatives involving its potential rivals, but it has been producing a running commentary on the Obama visit, including editorials urging Modi “not to fall into the US trap”.

Beijing has been especially put out by the declaration’s references to the South China Sea which China virtually regards as its private lake. Obama and Modi called for all parties to avoid “threat or use of force” and to refer disputes to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China, which is facing off with several South-east Asian countries over its territorial claims, has consistently refused to involve the international arbiter, insisting that “relevant disputes should be resolved through peaceful talks and consultations” between the parties involved. However that has not stopped it unilaterally occupying islands and towing oil rigs into disputed areas.  

Commentators are claiming the Joint Strategic Vision is an historic shift in India’s long-standing policy of non-alignment, but the country has been gradually changing its stance at least since Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was swept to power in the May General Election, if not before.

Modi’s first state visit was to Bhutan, quickly followed by Nepal, countries on India’s northern border where Chinese influence has been growing.

His initial overtures to China itself were promising, but the Prime Minister was outraged when visits by Foreign Minister Wang Yi and President Xi Jinping virtually coincided with provocations along the disputed border between the two countries in the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir.

This was followed by evidence that Chinese submarines planned to use port facilities in Sri Lanka, India’s southern neighbour, which would allow Beijing to push far into the Indian Ocean.

That threat has subsided with the election of a new, pro-Indian Government on the island, but one insider said “Modi has had enough”.

“Beijing thought it could string Modi along just as it has done with past Indian leaders and he was determined to show that was not the case,” the source said.

“I believe that was what was behind his decision to go ahead and launch the Joint Strategic Vision with Obama.”     

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