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  Opinion   Columnists  24 May 2023  K.C. Singh | Modi Pacific foray: China, Quad, islands & diaspora

K.C. Singh | Modi Pacific foray: China, Quad, islands & diaspora

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh.
Published : May 25, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Updated : May 25, 2023, 12:00 am IST

Mr Modi, perhaps mindful of past Opposition criticism of his partisan lectures while abroad, largely focused on India-Australia relations

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the Indian community programme, in Sydney. (Photo: PTI)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the Indian community programme, in Sydney. (Photo: PTI)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just concluded a whistlestop tour of three Pacific nations, including Japan where he attended the Group of Seven summit as a guest invitee. He began his tour in Hiroshima, as one of the eight guests the Japanese PM had invited to the G-7 meet, where Ukraine’s beleaguered President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stole the show with his unexpected appearance.

The Ukraine war continues to dominate the security threat perception of most G-7 members. Hiroshima was also where Mr Modi had his first face-to-face meeting with Mr Zelensky. India so far has used philosophical sophistry to avoid naming Russia as the aggressor or seeking Russian withdrawal from militarily usurped Ukrainian territory. Mr Modi’s earlier phrase that “this is not an era of war” has now evolved into: “For me, it is an issue of humanity”. It is unlikely that either Mr Zelenskyy or the G-7 nations supporting Ukraine militarily would take solace from that. China, which began with similarly evasive statements, has transitioned towards working actively to stop the war. It has even named a special envoy for Ukraine. China’s President Xi Jinping has been going through the motions of engaging both sides and consulting other major players. Thus, India could not have remained passively concerned, especially when reports surfaced of Indian private sector refiners making a killing exporting refined Russian oil to Europe.

The G-7 summit’s outcome is spelt in the “Leaders’ Statement on Economic Resilience and Economic Security”. They agreed to foster mutually beneficial partnerships to create resilient and sustainable value chains. They identified four vulnerabilities -- natural disasters, pandemics, geopolitical tensions and coercion. The last relates to the Chinese use of economic coercion when any nation is perceived as defying its geopolitical priorities.

The motive behind building resilient supply chains is the disruption seen over the last three years, first due to Covid-19 and then the Ukraine war. Resilient critical infrastructure refers to the digital domain and the fear of China using companies like Huawei to gain intrusive supremacy. The call to counter the undermining of international rules and norms is a direct critique of Chinese conduct in its maritime neighbourhood and the Russian breach of Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

What then is the takeaway from the Hiroshima G-7 summit? Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his foreign minister travelled extensively abroad to gauge the mood in the developing nations, now dubbed as the “Global South”. In 2009, then US President Barack Obama, following the financial crisis of 2008, had the G-7 accept a widened consultation mechanism, to include rapidly growing nations like India, China and Brazil. This is how the G-20, which India chairs this year, was born. His successor Donald Trump appeared to agree, and described the G-7 as “outdated”. While the GDP of the G-7 collectively had a 70 per cent share in global output in the 1980s, it had shrunk to 45 per cent by 2021. Even more interestingly, in PPP terms the share of the five Brics nations -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- now exceed that of the G-7.

The G-7 members are aware that to really counter China they need to have an outreach strategy to the Global South. China is seen by most of Africa and Latin America as more stable and less questioning about the domestic politics of most nations. According to the Economist magazine, Japan thus evolved the view that the G-7 must use arguments like threat to the rule of law and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations rather than evangelically pursuing human rights and democracy. Most nations can relate to concrete arguments impinging on their own existence, but not so much to nebulous prescriptions of liberal democracy.

The second leg of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tour took him to Papua New Guinea. Its Prime Minister James Marape took everyone by surprise by touching his guest’s feet. Thereafter, they co-hosted a summit of the 14-nation Forum for India Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC). For some time, China has been making inroads into this sensitive cluster of islands with extensive maritime economic zones. India would have to coordinate with its Quad partners to be able to bring development assistance that matches the Chinese proposals under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The G-7 also realises that they must listen to the Global South and address their financial and economic issues.

The final leg of Mr Modi’s sojourn was a two-day Australian stopover. The original raison d’être was the proposed Quad summit, which got shifted to the sidelines of the G-7 due to US President Joe Biden’s political commitments back home.

Normally the PM’s visit also would have got postponed as the Australian Prime Minister had been to India earlier this year. Summits, in order to be productive, need some gap to allow decisions to be implemented. But the huge diaspora event that had been organised in Sydney, hosted by the Indian Australian Diaspora Foundation, beckoned. The venue, with a capacity of 20,000, was mostly full.

The Indian diaspora is now 2.5 per cent of Australia’s population, numbering over 600,000. Mr Modi had last visited Australia in 2014, soon after assuming office. If postponed, he may not have easily found another slot for Australia with the Lok Sabha polls over the horizon.

The inauguration of “Little India”, a neighbourhood dominated by persons of Indian origin, reflects that the Indian diaspora is finding roots. Similarly named areas exist even in New York. Australian PM Anthony Albanese, overcome by the crowd’s euphoria, turned hyperbolic in praising his Indian guest’s star power.

Mr Modi, perhaps mindful of past Opposition criticism of his partisan lectures while abroad, largely focused on India-Australia relations. His penchant for acronyms was on mark when he said the relationship has matured from the 3-Ds --democracy, diaspora and dosti -- to energy, economy and education. Australia is a favoured destination for Indians seeking quality education at a reasonable cost, with the possibility of immigration.

The Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (ECTA) between India and Australia is operational, enabling almost 85 per cent of Australian exports to enter India tariff-free. Australia is an outstanding source for minerals, metals and gas, including huge reserves of rare earths that the world requires for a transition to carbon neutrality. It is thus a natural strategic and economic partner for India.

However, hugs and slogans aside, Australia is a US ally with deeper security commitments than India favours. But the shared worries over China, the growing Indian diaspora and the natural complementarity of their economies heralds a productive partnership.

Tags: narendra modi, volodymyr zelenskyy, ukraine, anthony albanese