BY M.R. JOSSE
KATHMANDU: While awaiting breathlessly for the Trump-Kim summit slated for Singapore on June 12, 2018 – dubbed by some the ‘Summit of the Century’ – attention may be focused on less dramatic but still noteworthy geo-strategic goings-on here and there.
Some are related to broader issues of clashing geopolitical interests among the big powers; others, more narrowly, deal with certain aspects of Nepal-China relations on the eve of Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s forthcoming visit to China.
Last week’s column dwelt, in part, on the perceived lack of discernible or rousing interest in Beijing vis-à-vis the Oli visit; this piece will focus on its intriguing timing and its significance, while referring in passing to unconfirmed media reports suggesting that the widely expected formalization of the proposed China-Nepal rail link will not happen on this prime ministerial outing.
Regarding the timing of Oli’s diplomatic sortie up north, what yours truly found most absorbing was an account in khabardabali.com disclosing that the prime minister had wanted to time his visit with the convening of a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Qingdao, Shandong Province, beginning on June 9, 2018.
(This summit will incidentally represent the first time that the event returns to its country of origin since the leaders of the constituent countries met in Beijing five years ago.)
For our purposes here, it should be enough to note that, as per the news source quoted earlier, the visit’s timeline was considered ‘inconvenient’ by the Chinese side which suggested it start June 19. So, what are we to make of all this?
First, of course, it hints at the lack of maturity or sophistication on the part of the prime minister and his foreign policy team: even a neophyte would have figured that a bilateral visit to China when she was hosting a major international summit was an obvious no-no!
Secondly, what it also perhaps implies is a burning and impatient desire on Oli’s part to rub shoulders with the big guns of the SCO; or, was the thinking in Baluwatar that given that the Oli-led government has a more than 2/3rds majority in parliament he would have been eagerly welcomed even in a China busy with hosting an international summit?
Speculating still further, the reported attempt to have the Oli excursion coincide with the SCO summit in Qingdao betrays a lack of appreciation of the impact that his submerged pro-Indian proclivities, exhibited during his India visit and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foray here soon after, might have had in cooling Beijing’s ardor vis-à-vis his belated China visit.
It may now be in order to recall that the SCO was gradually expanded in number and scope of activity until, between 2005-2006, the original loose-link grouping of China, Russia and four former Soviet Central Asian republics added Mongolia, Pakistan, India and Iran as observers.
In 2017, India and Pakistan became full members, India proposed by Russia and Pakistan by China.
Currently, SCO has four non-voting ‘observer states’ – Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia – and six ‘dialogue partners’ that include Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Last week, a news story was headlined: ‘In nod to India, US renames its Pacific Command’ as US-Indo Pacific Command. US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, explained in Honolulu: “In recognition of the increasing connectivity between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, today we rename the US Pacific Command to US-Indo Pacific Command.”
While it is impossible to miss the anti-China overtones of this move, what I find very meaningful is that, speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue on Security in Singapore, Modi, as reported in BJP mouthpiece The Pioneer, said he did not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or club of limited members.
What needs to be pointed out is not only that the above comment came a little more than a month of Modi’s informal summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan but that the Indian prime minister seemed most anxious to clarify that India did not subscribe to any strategy of containing China – as long perceived under the ‘Quad’ scheme along with the US, Japan, South Korea and Australia!
It hardly requires a genius to figure that with Modi bound for SCO confabulations in Qingdao sometime soon he did not wish to be perceived as part of any anti-China ganging up scheme, or even to appear to side with the US in its confrontational stance towards China vis-à-vis ongoing South China Sea disputes.
Earlier, of course, Modi had seemed to be keen to jump in on a US-led campaign against China’s claims with respect to the South China Sea, including islands contained therein.
This begs at least two questions, and credible clarifications.
The first is to determine whether Modi’s latest stance on the ‘Indo-Pacific’ notion represents a basic shift in strategic thinking on India’s part or whether it is merely a tactical gesture, perhaps to buy time – say, until the 2019 general elections in India are over.
The second, of course, is to probe whether Modi’s perceived softness towards China – as in inherent in his comment on references to an Indo-Pacific region in his Singapore address – is part of some deal wherein India will not challenge China on its global concerns/interests as long as it is allowed to do what it wants in its South Asian neighbourhood, including Nepal.
NOT INDIAN LAKE
Though only time will determine what is exactly what it must be emphasized that the Indian Ocean is not an Indian lake, where India has a special say or right.
It represents the third largest ocean and stretches from the western shores of Australia to the tip of the African continent and to the Red Sea and the Arab/Persian Gulf.
There are 47 littoral and hinterland states in the Indian Ocean region – 20 littoral states (like India and Pakistan) and 27 hinterland states (like Nepal).
From the SCO to the US Indo-Pacific Command
BY M.R. JOSSE