Singapore – On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not disappoint the vast gathering of defence ministers, strategic thinkers and the world media assembled in Singapore for the 17th Shangri La dialogue. Almost everyone expected a blueprint for the future of Indo-Pacific region from the Indian Prime Minister and that’s exactly what he did in the 35-minute keynote address to the prestigious conference. The speech was vast in its scope, vision and philosophy rooted as it was in India’s civilizational heritage.
He advocated a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific—that vast expanse stretching from the east coast of Africa to Western Pacific—based on rules and norms. “We will promote a democratic and rules-based international order, in which all nations, small and large, thrive as equal and sovereign. We will work with others to keep our seas, space and airways free and open; our nations secure from terrorism; and our cyber space free from disruption and conflict. We will keep our economy open and our engagement transparent. We will share our resources, markets and prosperity with our friends and partners. We will seek a sustainable future for our planet, as through the new International Solar Alliance together with France and other partners. This is how we wish ourselves and our partners to proceed in this vast region and beyond. The ancient wisdom of the region is our common heritage,” he said in conclusion of his address.
For much of the speech, India’s Prime Minister emphasised the necessity to work together for prosperity well-being of the people in the region and underlined the need for multilateralism and regionalism, principles that India is vigorously pursuing in its foreign policy in recent years. Ever the master of the time and place, Modi time and again stressed on the centrality of South-east Asia or to be more precise the ASEAN nations in the Indo-Pacific framework. “The ten countries of South East Asia connect the two great oceans in both the geographical and civilizational sense. Inclusiveness, openness and ASEAN centrality and unity, therefore, lie at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific. India does not see the Indo-Pacific Region as a strategy or as a club of limited members,” he reminded the audience mainly drawn from the strategic community. Modi in fact held up ASEAN as a fine example diverse nations rising above rivalries and differences for common good. “I see ASEAN as an example and inspiration,” he said.
The Indian Prime Minister however flagged likely threats to the rules-based order and cautioned against being complacent without pointing a finger at China—considered the new power that has upended the decades-old international system. Mr Modi pointed out: “We believe that our common prosperity and security require us to evolve, through dialogue, a common rules-based order for the region. And, it must equally apply to all individually as well as to the global commons. Such an order must believe in sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as equality of all nations, irrespective of size and strength. These rules and norms should be based on the consent of all, not on the power of the few. This must be based on faith in dialogue, and not dependence on force. It also means that when nations make international commitments, they must uphold them.” Differences should not become disputes he implored even as he held out hope when the Indian Prime Minister declared: “The world has a better future when India and China work together and are sensitive to each other’s interests”.
On Saturday, US secretary of Defence James Mattis echoed Prime Minister Modi’s call and supported his vision: Speaking at the opening session on the second day, he said: “As Prime Minister Modi reflected last night, a commitment to common values must be a foundation or even the foundation upon which we build a shared destiny.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with India, ASEAN and our treaty allies and other partners, America seeks to build an Indo-Pacific where sovereignty and territorial integrity are safeguarded –the promise of freedom fulfilled and prosperity prevails for all.” Later in his speech and during the question and answer session, Mattis however took a tough line against China. “I think there are consequences to China ignoring the international community. We firmly believe in the non-coercive aspects of how nations should get along with each other, that they should listen to each other…Nothing wrong with competition, nothing wrong with having strong positions, but when it comes down to introducing what they have done in the South China Sea, there are consequences,” Mattis remarked in response to a comment that the Chinese had what they had to do in South China Sea and there is nothing the world can do about it.
The US Secretary of Defence, also acknowledged India’s importance in the American strategy for the Indo-Pacific. “In South Asia we are strengthening our partnerships, particularly with India. Prime Minister Modi’s remarks last evening underscored India’s role as a leader and responsible steward in the Indo-Pacific region.
“The U.S. values the role India can play in regional and global security, and we view the U.S.-India relationship as a natural partnership between the world’s two largest democracies, based on a convergence of strategic interests, shared values, and respect for a rule-based international order.
“Our regional cooperation is growing in a range of areas, consistent with these shared objectives. Our partnership extends beyond the Indo-Pacific region, and we welcome India’s continued significant contributions to stability reconstruction in Afghanistan.” The convergence in thoughts from India’s Prime Minister and Mattis is likely to raise hackles in China which does not like to be lectured on the way it behaves. How Beijing reacts to these remarks—especially after it appears bent on improving relations with both New Delhi and Washington—will be watched with great interest in coming days.