By M K Bhadrakumar
India’s ‘Look East’ policy, which shifted to ‘Act East’ under the Modi government circa 2015, may now have to quickly shift again to, say, ‘Watch East’. It will be on the one hand a judicious shift in tune with the rapid stabilization of the ASEAN’s relations with China and on the other hand a cathartic experience insofar as the flow of events in the south-east Asian region holds some useful lessons for Indian diplomacy.
Looking back, the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s award of 12 July 2016 on the South China Sea (SCS) has turned out to be a turning point, opening a new page of cooperation between the ASEAN and China. A fair amount of ground has been covered in the past year with the hotline at foreign ministry level to manage maritime emergencies, the operationalization of the observance of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, and the framework of the Code of Conduct in the SCS. Sourabh Gupta at the Institute for China-America Studies in Washington sums up:
In fact, every member of Asean, with the exception perhaps of Singapore, yearns for the success of Asean-China political relations but not at the inadmissible cost of having to capitulate to Beijing’s unilateral and non-conforming sovereign rights claim to oil and gas resources in their respective exclusive economic zones in the South China Sea.
The current easing cycle, rather, will lend itself to a period of strategic calm in this critically important waterway. Without an agitated local claimant on whose behalf it can claim to be intervening to uphold the stability of the South China Sea, the US has few other tools at its disposal to assert its relevance and authority in this body of water other than to endlessly navigate its length and breadth.
No doubt, the announcement in Manila on Wednesday of a new “modus vivendi” or a new “way to get along” is in sync with the trend outlined above by Gupta. It appears that there has been a diplomatic breakthrough between the Philippines and China. “The Chinese will not occupy new features in the South China Sea nor are they are going to build structures in Scarborough Shoal,” Philippine Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana told lawmakers in Manila on Tuesday. Cayetano also said the Philippines was working on a “commercial deal” with China to explore and exploit oil and gas resources in disputed areas of the SCS with an aim to begin drilling within a year. To be sure, when the “frontline state” that is Philippines leaves behind standoffs and brinkmanship with China, something has fundamentally changed in the SCS. There are lessons here for other countries having territorial disputes with China.
These are early days, but according to reports from Hanoi, the Spanish drilling ship, which has been prospecting in the disputed waters in in Vietnam’s Block 136/3 last month, has left the area after pressure from China. Interestingly, according to reports citing a “diplomatic source with direct knowledge of the situation”, Hanoi’s decision to suspend the drilling followed the visit of a Vietnamese delegation to Beijing.
The Philippine approach under President Rodrigo Duterte is strikingly similar to India’s under the leadership of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “compartmentalizing” different templates of the relationship with China whereby hugely beneficial economic engagement is possible without forfeiting the prerogative to uphold national security interests. Yet, Duterte’s political personality has more in common with Prime Minister Modi than with Manmohan Singh.
Like Modi, Duterte is also a strongman populist. Both thrive on polarizing domestic politics and both pursue controversial approaches to social problems. Neither claims to have a sophisticated understanding of international affairs.
But where Duterte leaves Modi way behind is in his pragmatism to eschew confrontational and megaphone diplomacy and to leave the territorial disputes as a stalemate and instead maximise the economic benefits of the China relationship.
The East Asia Forum has featured a riveting analysis of Duterte’s policy by Prof. Aileen S P Baviera at the University of the Philippines, who writes, By de-linking economic relations from management of the disputes, Manila can benefit from Beijing at a time when sustained high growth and investor confidence in the Philippines coincides with a massive investment drive by China as part of BRI [Belt and Road Initiative]… Duterte’s China policy shift also reduces disagreement within ASEAN over the handling of the disputes.
Of course, the success of the policy also depends on China. To quote Baviera, “China would have to downplay nationalist emotions and restrain military adventurism. This could give Duterte breathing space both for repairing relations with China and reorienting the US alliance towards more convergent objectives.”
The big question is whether the tidings from Manila and Hanoi presage a “new normal”. Though the Code of Conduct between China and the aggrieved members of the ASEAN is not yet a done deal, a future order of the SCS based on international rules and norms seems a near-term possibility. The Global Times newspaper carried on Tuesday a “preview” of what a future SCS order might look like based on principles of “equality”, “balance” and “openness”.