Modi at Shangri-La: Covering the Waterfront While Pulling Punches

On June 1, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India delivered a keynote address at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)–hosted “Shangri-La Dialogue 2018” in Singapore. While his presence was historic, he assiduously avoided confrontational rhetoric and offered little vision for India’s future role in the region. He offered a lengthy overview of India’s current security posture but avoided any mention of hot spots such as North Korea or Pakistan. Mr. Modi portrayed India’s ties with China in a hopeful light. Upcoming bilateral meetings, such as the U.S.-India “2+2” in July, loom large to help define India’s emerging security role as an Indo-Pacific anchor.

The Shangri-La Dialogue has become one of the most important annual events focused on Asian security affairs. This marks the first time an Indian leader has made a keynote address. Prime Minister Modi is no stranger to large global platforms; he regularly makes public addresses during his numerous international visits. But those speeches, even when touching on security issues, tend to be mostly focused on bilateral ties with his counterpart for specific summits. There are fewer opportunities to outline his vision for India’s overall security architecture—such topics do not resonate with India’s domestic voters.

India has numerous, sometimes overlapping, security interests in the Indo-Pacific region. Chief among them: highlighting Pakistan’s continued role in supporting terrorism; reasserting India’s primacy in dealings with other South Asian nations; supporting cooperation for stability in Afghanistan; preparing for an increased Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean; and finding small, meaningful ways to expand India’s regional security leadership.

What Mr. Modi Said That Was Expected

Prime Minister Modi reiterated the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the Indo-Pacific region and India’s long engagement with ASEAN. He stressed the importance of freedom of navigation, the need for Asian nations to uphold their commitments, and for rules and norms to be created based on negotiation instead of force.

What Mr. Modi Said That Was Surprising

Presuming a great deal of thought went toward structuring the speech, it is surprising that Russia received pride of place over the United States as Mr. Modi ran through India’s security partnerships. Potential U.S. sanctions against India for the pending acquisition of a $4.5-billion missile defense system looms large in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Modi stressed the importance of economic integration, including through trade agreements. He also urged nations to avoid protectionism. While he has highlighted the positive role of trade in the past, notably in his address at the World Economic Forum earlier this year, India has itself dramatically increased customs duties this year and is widely viewed as the main obstacle to concluding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement. It is a bit surprising he chose to highlight concerns about protectionism while increasing trade barriers unilaterally.

India’s growing ties with Korea were also highlighted. Korea is the main Asian democracy with which India has had little luck in developing a real security rapport. This is slowly changing. In fact, India’s growing partnership with Korea was mentioned before its ties with Australia and New Zealand.

What Mr. Modi Did Not Say

India has a more expansive geographic view of the “Indo-Pacific” than most U.S. strategists. With Secretary of Defense James Mattis in the audience, the Shangri-La platform provided Mr. Modi an opportunity to highlight India’s own definition of the Indo-Pacific’s borders, including the Middle East and Africa’s eastern coast. While the Middle East and Africa received token mentions, they were not highlighted, and this contrasted with the U.S. vision for the geographic region.

Mr. Modi also chose to avoid stressing the threat of terrorism. This is quite unusual, as he has used similar platforms in the past to underscore concerns about terrorism, particularly with regard to Pakistan.

Similarly, Afghanistan was not mentioned once during the keynote address. While the Shangri-La Dialogue is often viewed as more maritime in focus, it is “The Asia Security Summit.” Failing to mention security hot spots like Afghanistan, where India has taken a real leadership role, was notable for its absence.

India has, on paper, dramatically deepened Indian Ocean cooperation with France over the last year. Yet France received hardly a mention beyond cooperation in the International Solar Alliance.

ASEAN nations received a thorough overview of India’s past and current actions in the region. But the world is left without new insight as to how India sees its role emerging in the future. Instead, this role will likely have to be developed in smaller group settings, particularly bilateral engagements with key partners such as Japan and the United States.

What’s Next for U.S.-India Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Region

Last year the United States and India announced a new “2 plus 2” format for our highest-level annual meeting, bringing together our respective defense and foreign ministers. The first such dialogue is expected in Washington, D.C., in early July. This ministerial is a pivotal moment to determine three things:

  1. Will we find conformity in our respective geographic interpretations of the Indo-Pacific region?
  2. Will our souring trade relations interfere with our advancing security relations?
  3. Will the United States strongly reiterate the intention to exempt India from potential sanctions in spite of India’s cooperation with Russia and Iran?

India’s spring 2019 national election is often portrayed as an obstacle to taking any dramatic steps in deepening the security partnership. However, history shows that sitting governments in India have been willing to take big steps in the months ahead of national elections. Some recent examples include the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government concluding the “Next Steps in Strategic Partnership” with the George W. Bush administration just months ahead of the 2004 national election, or the Manmohan Singh government submitting the “Safeguards Agreement” to the International Atomic Energy Agency less than a year ahead of the 2009 national election, which triggered a confidence vote in Parliament. The United States and India have a lot of potential deliverables on the table. Though Mr. Modi’s speech in Singapore did not offer any substantial new commitments to Indo-Pacific security, upcoming summits may yet serve this purpose.

Richard M. Rossow is a senior adviser and holds the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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