Sri Lankan strongmen and Chinese initiatives: India’s neighborhood is as bustling as ever

On October 25, 2018 Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena suspended Parliament (till November 16, 2018) and sacked his Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, replacing him with Mahindra Rajapaksa (who served as President of Sri Lanka for a decade, from 2005 till 2015). Sirisena had wrested power from Rajapaksa in 2015. Wickremesinghe decided to battle it out, saying that Sirisena’s decision was illegal since none of the conditions under which a Prime Minister can be removed, under provisions 46(2) and 48 of parliament were applicable to the current situation. Rajapaksa announced that the President will reconvene Parliament on November 5, 2018.

Rajapaksa has been gaining ground in recent months

First, Rajapaksa, who had been written off totally, set up a new political outfit, SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna), which performed well in the local elections of February 2018.

More recently, Sirisena, who was initially considered Pro-China, accused Indian intelligence agency RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) of meddling in Sri Lanka’s affairs and plotting his assassination. He supposed to have denied this in a conversation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

As President, Rajapaksa had a close relationship with China (there were allegations of a Chinese company even providing financial assistance for his campaign) and New Delhi was relieved to see his back.

The strategically important Hambantota Port Project was awarded to the Chinese during Rajapaksa’s presidency. China provided assistance to the tune of $190 million, and Sri Lanka had to lease out the project for a period of 99 years to Beijing in 2017, since debts to Beijing are mounting (total Sri Lankan debts to China are estimated at $13 billion). The Hambantota Project is now presented as a symbol of what has been referred to on more than one occasion as China’s debt trap diplomacy.

It would be pertinent to point out that the project had first been offered to New Delhi in 2010, but India declined stating that the project was not economically sustainable.

It would also be pertinent to point out here that, after his removal, Rajapaksa has made some statements in favor of close ties with both Beijing and New Delhi. Indian PM Narendra Modi has met him on both his visits to Sri Lanka. In September 2018 Rajapaksa was himself in New Delhi.

How to approach the China factor

While there is no clarity as to how long this new arrangement will last in Sri Lanka, there are some broader issues which need to be dealt with.

The first question which arises is: should New Delhi view China’s involvement with suspicion or work jointly? While there is absolutely no doubt that, in recent years, India too has tried to come up with its own responses to the China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in South Asia. This includes promoting greater connectivity within South Asian countries through the BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) framework on the one hand, while also exploring synergies with Japan in order to check Beijing’s growing clout on the other. This includes not just cooperation under the umbrella of Japan’s PQI (Partnership for Quality Infrastructure) initiative, but also in areas like infrastructure and energy (two key instances being the metro project in Dhaka, where India’s Larsen & Toubro and Japanese companies are working jointly for developing Line 6, as well as an LNG terminal in Sri Lanka where Petronet and Japanese companies are making a joint investment to the tune of $300 million).

During Wuhan Summit one of the important issues discussed was that India and China will work together in Afghanistan (only recently both countries set up a joint training program for Afghan Diplomats). Pakistan has been trying to obstruct any big ticket cooperation between both countries, and that is cited as one of the main reasons why Beijing is shying away from any big ticket investments into a joint project in Afghanistan.

If Japan and China can work together in connectivity projects (Japan has even expressed its willingness to join the BRI), as was discussed during Abe’s recent China visit, New Delhi and Beijing too can explore certain instances where they work together. It would be pertinent to point out that the Global Times made an interesting argument in favor of New Delhi and Beijing working in tandem for Sri Lanka’s infrastructural development. While this may appear to be a pipedream currently, in the long run it can not be ruled out given the changing geopolitical equations.

Apart from this, there are clear lessons for New Delhi: that it should not put all eggs in one basket, and realize that certain leaders will have good relations with China. A former Diplomat, Ashok Kantha, who was India’s envoy to Sri Lanka, made the point that India needed to stop looking at domestic politics from a lens of ‘Pro-India and Pro-China’, as this is too simplistic.

While India was apprehensive about the election of K.P. Oli as Nepalese Prime Minister, he has been speaking about close ties with both Beijing and New Delhi. During his visit to China in June 2018, Oli spoke about the possibility of Nepal emerging as a bridge between China and India.

In conclusion, New Delhi has to watch out for it’s own interests in South Asia, and should certainly ensure that no country has a stranglehold, but paranoia will be of no use. India needs to come up with viable alternatives to the BRI, while also being open to cooperation, as and when feasible. Apart from this, New Delhi needs to realize that countries in the neighborhood will give precedence to their own interests and even if they do maintain close economic linkages with China, it is not always targeted at India.

American protectionism and Asian responses

On October 10, 2018, a senior Chinese diplomat in India underscored the need for New Delhi and Beijing to work jointly in order to counter the policy of trade protectionism being promoted by US President Donald Trump.

It would be pertinent to point out that US had imposed tariffs estimated at $200 billion in September 2018, Beijing imposed tariffs on $60 billion of US imports as a retaliatory measure, and US threatened to impose further tariffs. Interestingly, US trade deficit vis-à-vis China reached $34.1 billion for the month of September (in August 2018, it was $31 billion). Critics of Trump point to this increasing trade deficit vis-à-vis China as a reiteration of the fact that Trump’s economic policies are not working.

Ji Rong, spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in India, said that tariffs will be detrimental for both India and China and, given the fact that both are engines of economic growth, it is important for both to work together.

The Chinese diplomat’s statement came at an interesting time. Continue reading

The EU’s laudable Asia Connectivity Strategy

The European Union (EU) has put forward a plan for enhancing connectivity within Asia, and has been dubbed as the Asia Connectivity Strategy.

The EU does not want to give an impression that the Asia Connectivity Strategy (ACS) is a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Yet, senior officials of the EU, while commenting on the broad aims and objectives of the project, have categorically stated that the primary goal of the Asia Connectivity Strategy is enhancing connectivity (physical and digital) while also ensuring that local communities benefit from such a project, and that environmental and social norms are not flouted (this is a clear allusion to the shortcomings of the BRI). There are no clear details with regard to the budget, and other modalities of the project (EU member countries are likely to give a go ahead for this project, before the Asia-Europe Meeting in October 2018). The EU has categorically stated that it would like to ensure that the ACS is economically sustainable.

Other alternatives to BRI: the US

It is not just the EU, but also the US, along with Japan and Australia, which are trying to create an alternative vision to the BRI.

Continue reading

India’s approach towards BRI: Need for pragmatism

(new title)

Recently, China’s consular general in Kolkata, Ma Zhanwu, while speaking at a function, proposed a bullet train connecting Kunming (in China’s Yunnan Province) with Kolkata, the capital of India’s eastern state of West Bengal. Said Ma:

With joint efforts of India and China, a high-speed rail link could be established between the two cities.

It would be pertinent to point out that the proposal for a bullet train connecting Kunming and Kolkata had been discussed earlier at the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) meet in 2015. In fact, enhancing connectivity between India and China through the Kolkata-Kunming multi-modal corridor (officially the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, or BCIMEC), which covers a distance of 2,800 kilometres, has been under discussion for over 2 decades, through the Track II K2K (Kolkata-Kunming) dialogue. During former India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s China visit, in October 2013, sister city relations were established between Kunming and Kolkata.

In recent years, China has been pro-actively reaching out to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, and has invited her to visit on repeated occasions, though she has been unable to visit (she was all set to visit in June 2018, but her trip was cancelled at the last moment). Apart from this, a number of Chinese investors have expressed interest in investing in West Bengal and even attended the Bengal Global Business Summit 2018.

Given the increasing emphasis on connectivity with South East Asia, through India’s North East (one of the key aims of India’s ‘Act East Policy’), it was believed that the BCIMEC would tie in neatly with India’s vision for connectivity.

However, tensions between India and China – due to the Doklam standoff as well as Beijing’s insistence that BCIMEC be included in its official Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) –  have contributed to a wane in New Delhi’s interest in the project, at least for the time being. The Rohingya crisis, and more general tensions between Bangladesh and Myanmar, are also a major impediment to the project.

The China Myanmar Economic Corridor: Why New Delhi should pay close attention

While a high speed train is an ambitious project, New Delhi can not be closed to the BCIMEC and should pay close attention to the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (the Memorandum of Understanding for this project was signed on September 9, 2018). While the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) has been under discussion for some time, there have been numerous debates with regard to the economic implications for Myanmar (the Kyaukphyu Deep Sea Port project, as well as Special Economic Zones, have been contentious). The increasing debate on the issue of ‘debt trap diplomacy’ has only increased apprehensions within sections of the Myanma government (the stake of Chinese conglomerate CITIC in the deep sea port has been reduced from 85 percent to 70 percent due to domestic pressures). Myanmar has also made it clear that it would not like to depend only on Chinese investments, and the recently-signed MOU categorically states that third party investments from Japan, South Korea, and Thailand in CMEC projects are more than welcome. Interestingly, an article on CMEC in Chinese media acknowledges some of the apprehensions vis-à-vis CMEC, and also bats for closer cooperation between China and other Asian and Western countries.

The proposal for the bullet train connecting Kolkata-Kunming came days after the agreement had been signed between China and Myanmar. China would like to extend this corridor all the way to India (while speaking about rail connectivity between Kunming and Kolkata, the Chinese diplomat also spoke about an industrial cluster along the route).

How should New Delhi play it?

While New Delhi’s objections to the BRI are valid, it does need to shed blinkers. It is free not to participate in those components of the project with which it is not comfortable, but there are projects, like the BCIMEC, where it can easily find common ground with China. This will give a boost to India’s infrastructure in the eastern and northeastern part of the country, and complement it’s Act East Policy. If third countries are allowed to invest in CMEC, Indian companies should explore opportunities, as this will enhance their presence in Myanmar while also bolstering the Act East Policy.

China’s narrative in South Asia

Post the Wuhan Summit, there has been a clear change of narrative from the Chinese side. China has expressed its keenness to work jointly with India in Afghanistan – in capacity-building projects. This was unthinkable a few years ago.

China’s burgeoning economic relationship with Nepal has sent alarm signals in New Delhi. China’s decision to give Nepal access to its ports (Tianjin, Shenzhen, Lianyungang and Zhanjiang) raised the hackles in New Delhi. Pragmatists realize that New Delhi can not dictate Nepal’s ties with China, and the fact is that Kathmandu would like to benefit economically from its ties with both China and India.

Interestingly, China has been urging Nepal to strengthen economic ties with India. During his visit to Beijing, Nepal’s Prime Minister, K.P. Oli, made an unequivocal pitch for strong ties between Kathmandu and New Delhi (as well as Kathmandu and Beijing). He stated that the economic progress of both India and China was an opportunity for Nepal, and stated that Nepal wanted to emerge as a bridge between both countries, and would not like to get embedded in zero sum geopolitical games. Nepal’s former Prime Minister, Prachanda, during his visit to India, also referred to the need for close ties with both India and China.

India should also keep in mind a few other points

While many in New Delhi are pointing to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad’s stand against Chinese projects, it is important to keep in mind that while the Malaysian PM has scrapped a few projects, he has continued to reiterate the relevance of the China-Malaysia relationship (there is need for nuance). Second, it is one thing to point out the shortcomings of the BRI project, but India needs to prove its own track record in big ticket connectivity projects (New Delhi has been extremely slow when it comes to the implementation of connectivity projects within the neighbourhood). Third, there are areas where India is already working with China, so rigidity and paranoia do not make much sense. If even Japan is willing to participate in certain projects of BRI, there is absolutely no reason why India should not at least be open to elements of the project. It is also important to look at connectivity from an economic dimension and not a narrow security prism as large sections of India’s strategic community do. Finally, New Delhi can not put all its eggs in the American basket. While India’s strategic relationship with the US has witnessed an improvement, and Washington has repeatedly spoken about the need for greater connectivity within the ‘Indo-Pacific’, the US is not likely to invest significantly in economic connectivity projects. India thus can not be totally dismissive of Beijing-led connectivity initiatives.

While New Delhi needs to exhibit pragmatism, Beijing on its part needs to address the concerns of India, and other countries, with regard to the BRI.

A short note from New Delhi on the 2018 Eastern Economic Forum

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently attended the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), hosted by the Russian city of Vladivostok, which was held on September 11th and 12th of 2018. President Xi (who became the first Chinese President to attend the EEF) met with Russian President Vladimir Putin for the third time in as many months. Significantly, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also attended the Forum, which was titled “The Russian Far East: Expanding the Range of Possibilities.”

Both Xi and Putin repeatedly referred to not just their close personal rapport (Chinese President Xi Jinping, while referring to their individual ties, stated that his and Putin’s ‘friendship was getting stronger all the time’), but also the deepening of economic and strategic ties between Russia and China, as well as the convergence on key global issues (neither side missed the opportunity to target the US for it’s inward looking economic policies).

China was also participating in military exercises, held in Siberia, which have been dubbed ‘Vostok 2018’ (Beijing clarified that these military exercises were not targeted at any third party). The military exercise (September 11-17, 2018) involves 300,000 troops, 1,000 planes, and a number of warships. China sent over 3,000 People’s Liberation Army personnel for the military exercises.

China-Russia Economic Times

A number of issues were discussed during the course of the Forum. Both sides agreed that there was a need to accelerate bilateral economic ties. Trade has witnessed a significant rise in recent years, while in 2017 it was estimated at over $80 billion. In 2018, bilateral trade could surpass $100 billion. Chinese investments in Russia have also been increasing. According to the Russia-China Investment Fund (RCIF; set up in 2012), 150 representatives from China and Russia have already identified 73 projects estimated at $100 billion. Also according to the RCIF, 7 projects estimated at well over $4 billion have already been undertaken.

Both sides also agreed to promote stronger synergies between the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

Given the fact that the Forum was held in Russia’s Far Eastern Region (RFE), the need to increase Chinese investment in the RFE was high on the agenda. President Xi stated that China has always been a key participant in development projects in the Eastern parts of Russia. China’s Shandong Hi-Speed Group is also likely to invest in highway projects in the RFE.

Recent years have witnessed an increasing Chinese economic presence in Khabarovsk, which is the second largest city in the Eastern Region and 800 kilometres from Vladivostok. It may also be pertinent to point out that a large number of Russians have been uncomfortable with the growing Chinese economic clout, as well as immigrants. In 2010, the Chinese population in the Russian Far East was estimated at less than 30,000, though according to some estimates the population is much higher.

Protectionism

Both Russia and China warned against growing economic protectionism. Xi stated that he was all for greater international cooperation, and even lashed out at the growing tendency towards protectionism. Xi’s views were echoed by Putin, who stated that ‘the world and global economy are coming up against new forms of protectionism today with different kinds of barriers which are increasing.’

Putin made the point that protectionism was a threat, especially to Asia-Pacific (significantly, the current Trump administration has been using the term ‘Indo-Pacific,’ much to the chagrin of the Chinese).

What was also significant was that Xi came down heavily on ‘unilateralism’ at a time when China itself is being accused of ‘expansionist tendencies’ and promoting ‘Debt Trap Diplomacy.’ What was even more interesting was a reference to ‘UN Charter.’

The message emanating from the forum was clear: that the economic as well as strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing is likely to strengthen, and both will try to develop an alternative narrative to that currently emerging from Washington.

Significance of meeting: Why India would be watching

New Delhi would be observing the Forum and meetings between Putin and Xi, since it’s own relations between Russia and China are of vital importance. While Russia is important in the security context, economic ties with Beijing are important for New Delhi.

New Delhi attaches immense significance to ties with Moscow

There are many in analysts in New Delhi who argue that India should be cautious in strengthening strategic ties with the US, given that this could cause friction in New Delhi’s relations with Moscow (Russia’s improved defense ties with Pakistan are often cited as a consequence of New Delhi moving too close to Washington DC). There are others who argue that New Delhi’s ties with Moscow are robust and time-tested, and will not be impacted by close ties with Washington DC. Russian President Vladimir Putin will be visiting India in October 2018 (for the 19th annual India-Russia Summit), while Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, during her Moscow visit, met with Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov. Both of them jointly chaired the 23rd India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific, Technical, and Cultural Cooperation (IRIGC-TEC) meeting. A number of issues, including the need to boost bilateral trade and enhance people-to-people contact, were discussed. Significantly, this was Swaraj’s third visit to Russia in 11 months and she stated that India accorded ‘high priority’ to ties with Russia.

The fact that Swaraj’s visit to Russia took place after a successful 2+2 dialogue with the US, where a number of important defense agreements including COMCASA were signed, shows that New Delhi realizes the importance of ties with Russia. India is likely to sign a deal with Russia for the procurement of the S-400 air defence system, even though the USA has not given India any assurances with regard to a waiver from CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act) if India purchases defence equipment from Russia. During the visit, India is also likely to go ahead with an agreement with Russia for four frigates for the Indian Navy. While two of these will be manufactured in Kaliningrad, two will be manufactured in Goa.

New Delhi-Beijing ties

The issue of trade tariffs, which was highlighted by Putin and Xi, has also not gone unnoticed by New Delhi. One of the reasons (apart from the desire for peace and tranquility on borders) why India has been pro-actively reaching out to China is a convergence on economic issues. In fact, days after the 2+2 Summit, US President Trump, while referring to India and China, stated that the US has been providing subsidies to India and China for far too long and can not afford to do so any longer.

In terms of investments, there has not been much progress so far due to political disputes, but there is scope for greater economic cooperation between both countries through enhanced connectivity. New Delhi, on its part, should be open to projects like BCIM Corridor (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar). The recent proposal out of Beijing to start a railway line from Kunming to Kolkata may not seem possible in the short run, but in the long run it is definitely worth examining, and would give a boost to economies of India’s Eastern and North Eastern states. Interestingly, on September 9th, 2018, Myanmar signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China for agreeing to establish the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC). New Delhi should see this connectivity project as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

Conclusion

New Delhi, while enhancing strategic cooperation with Washington, needs to keep in mind that there is a plethora of economic as well as other issues of global importance where New Delhi can find common ground with Beijing and Moscow. India bilaterally shares robust economic ties with China, and a strategic relationship with Russia. All three countries are also working closely in BRICS as well as SCO. New Delhi also needs to keep in mind that while strategic ties with Washington are important, Trump’s unpredictability will compel New Delhi to keep all its options open and think in a nuanced manner. While historically New Delhi shares close ties with Moscow, the logic of geography can not be ignored in the context of India-China ties.

China and the liberal vision of the Indo-Pacific

Mike Pompeo’s recent speech (titled ‘America’s Indo-Pacific Economic Vision’) at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC, has been carefully observed across Asia. Beijing has understandably paid close special attention to it. Pompeo emphasized the need for greater connectivity within the Indo-Pacific, while also highlighting the role which the US was likely to play (including financial investments to the tune of $113 million in areas like infrastructure, energy, and digital economy). The US Secretary of State, while stating that this vision was not targeted at anyone, did make references to China’s hegemonic tendencies, as well as the lacunae of Chinese connectivity projects (especially the economic dimension).

The Chinese reaction to Pompeo’s speech was interesting. Senior Chinese government officials were initially dismissive of the speech, saying that such ideas have been spoken in the past, but produced no tangible results.

A response article in the Global Times is significant here. Titled ‘Indo-Pacific strategy more a geopolitical military alliance’ and published in the communist state’s premier English-language mouthpiece, what emerges clearly from this article is that Beijing is not taking the ‘Indo-Pacific vision’ lightly, and neither does it rule out the possibility of collaboration. The article is unequivocal, though, in expressing its skepticism with regard to the geopolitical aspect of the Indo-Pacific vision. Argues the article:

[…] the geopolitical connotation of the strategy may lead to regional tensions and conflicts and thus put countries in the region on alert.

The piece is optimistic with regard to the geo-economic dimension, saying that American investment would be beneficial and would promote economic growth and prosperity. What must be noted is that while the US vision for an ‘Indo-Pacific’ has been put forward as a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of China, the article also spoke about the possible complementarities between the US vision for an ‘Indo-Pacific’ and China’s version of BRI. While Pompeo had spoken about a crucial role for US private companies in his speech, the article clearly bats in favor of cooperation between the Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and US governments, rather than just private companies. This is interesting, given the fact that China had gone to the extent of dubbing the Indo-Pacific vision as “the foam on the sea […] that gets attention but will soon dissipate.”

While there is absolutely no doubt that there is immense scope for synergies between the Indo-Pacific vision and BRI, especially in the economic sphere, China’s recent openness towards the Indo-Pacific vision needs to be viewed in the following context.

First, the growing resentment against the economic implications of some BRI projects. In South Asia, Sri Lanka is a classical example of China’s debt trap diplomacy, where Beijing provides loans at high interest rates (China has taken over the strategic Hambantota Project, since Sri Lanka has been unable to pay Beijing the whopping $13 billion). Even in the ASEAN grouping, countries are beginning to question the feasibility of BRI projects. Malaysia, which shares close economic ties with Beijing, is reviewing certain Chinese projects (this was one of the first steps undertaken by Mahathir Mohammad after taking over the reigns as Prime Minister of Malaysia).

Secondly, the Indo-Pacific vision has long been dubbed as a mere ‘expression’ that lacks gravitas in the economic context (and even now $113 million is not sufficient). Developments over recent months, including the recent speech by Pompeo, indicate that the American Department of State seems to be keen to dispel this notion that the Indo-Pacific narrative is bereft of substance. Here it would be pertinent to point out that Pompeo’s speech was followed by an Asia visit to Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

The US needs to walk the course and, apart from investing, it needs to think of involving more countries, including Taiwan and more South Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the Indo-Pacific partnership.

The Indo-Pacific also speaks in favor of democracy as well as greater integration, but countries are becoming more inward-looking, and their stands on democracy and human rights are more ambiguous than in the past. Japan is trying to change its attitude towards immigration, and is at the forefront of promoting integration and connectivity within the Indo-Pacific. Neither the US, nor India, Japan, or Australia have criticized China for its human rights violations against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province.

Here it would also be important to state that there is scope for China to be part of the Indo-Pacific, but it needs to look at certain projects beyond the rubric of the BRI. A perfect instance is the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor, which India was willing to join, but China now considers this project as a part of BRI.

In conclusion, Beijing can not be excluded from the ‘Indo-Pacific’ narrative, but it cannot expect to be part of the same, on its own terms. It is also important for countries like the United States and India to speak up more forcefully on key issues pertaining to freedom of speech and diversity (and ensure that these remain robust in their own respective countries), given that one of the objectives of the Indo-Pacific vision is a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’.

Finally, the US is getting serious about the Indo-Pacific

China has not been particularly comfortable with the Trump Administration’s repeated use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ instead of ‘Asia-Pacific’ (of late, it has been quite scathing in it’s criticism). The term ‘Indo-Pacific’, which has been used for a few years, has now gained more attention after a few developments:

First, during Trump’s Asia visit in 2017, in which he visited Japan, Vietnam, and attended the ASEAN Summit, he used this term on more than one occasion.

Before his India visit in October 2017, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson articulated a vision for a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’. Tillerson, while pitching for a greater role for India in the Indo-Pacific, also highlighted the need for preventing illiberal multilateralism. Said the former US Secretary of State:

We need to collaborate with India to ensure that the Indo-Pacific is increasingly a place of peace, stability, and growing prosperity — so that it does not become a region of disorder, conflict, and predatory economics.

The use of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ was followed by the revival of the Quad Grouping (India, Australia, US, Japan). Senior officials of these four countries met on the eve of the East Asia Summit, held in Manila, and discussed ways to strengthen cooperation for promotion of a ‘Free and Fair Indo-Pacific’.

There have been a number of meetings between representatives of Japan, the US, and India to discuss a wide range of issues such as maritime cooperation, connectivity, and strengthening collaboration between these countries

China’s criticism of Indo-Pacific and Quad

China dismissed the Indo-Pacific as an ‘attention grabbing idea’, while the Quad too has been criticized by Beijing. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, while commenting on the Quad, likened the Quad to ‘foam on the sea’ that ‘will soon dissipate’ once the attention due to headlines turns elsewhere.

The Indo-Pacific narrative did lack a vision

One issue on which it is hard to disagree with Beijing, and those skeptical about the ‘Indo-Pacific’, is the fact that countries who have joined hands for promoting a Free and Fair Indo-Pacific (as a sort of counter narrative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative), did not have clarity in terms of enhancing connectivity and economic linkages. They have met on a number of occasions to discuss connectivity projects and a myriad of other issues but nothing substantial has emerged so far. This lack of effort, according to many, has been one of the main reasons for the Indo-Pacific narrative not being taken seriously (even by US allies). The other problem, of course, has been the Trump administration’s differences with allies like Japan and South Korea on economic and geopolitical issues.

US rolls out an economic vision for the Indo-Pacific

At the Indo-Pacific Business Forum, organized by the US Chamber of Commerce, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo articulated a broader economic vision for the Indo-Pacific, while also speaking about the likely role of the US in promoting cooperation.

First, Pompeo yet again reiterated the US desire for a Free and Open Indo Pacific, and how the US was fervently opposed to the hegemonic tendencies of certain countries (in a clear reference to China).

Second, at a time when a number of countries, such as Malaysia and Sri Lanka, are beginning to question the financial feasibility of China’s Belt and Road Initiative-related projects, Pompeo’s words are significant. It may also be pointed out that his address at the US Chamber of Commerce was made days before he began his Asia trip (which included visits to Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore).

Third, Pompeo spoke about the $113 million investment in areas such as digital economy, energy, and infrastructure. Pompeo dubbed this investment as a ‘…down payment on a new era in US economic commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region’.

Fourth, the US Secretary of State also spoke about the potential role of the US private sector in promoting economic growth, prosperity, and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. In an interview with CNBC, Pompeo stated:

We want private industry with the assistance of the United States government, understanding that we’re going to support this effort, we’re going to have private industry go in and develop relationships. When American businesses come to these countries, they’ll thrive

China’s reaction to Pompeo’s speech

China was dismissive of the US commitment towards Indo-Pacific, and Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang stated that even in the past, there has been talk of cooperation between Japan, the US, and Australia working jointly for developing infrastructure, but so far not much has been achieved.

While there is absolutely no doubt that an alternative narrative is needed to China, the US also needs to be more predictable in terms of economic and strategic relations with key players in the Indo-Pacific. One of Washington’s closest allies in the past, Japan, has been extremely uncomfortable with not just the tariffs, but also on Trump’s handling of strategic issues (such as the North Korea issue).

The example of Indian and Japanese Companies in South Asia

If differences can be ironed out, there is clear space for companies of different countries to work together in the Indo-Pacific. India and Japan have already taken the lead in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh (two countries likely to play an important role in the Indo-Pacific). In Bangladesh, Marubeni and Larsen and Toubro shall work jointly for supplying electrical and mechanical railway systems for Phase 6 of the Dhaka Mass Rapid Transport. In Sri Lanka, Petronet, along with Japanese companies, is setting up an LNG terminal near Colombo (L&T has already been working with Marubeni for setting up a 400 MW gas plant in Habibgant district, Bangladesh). Petronet will hold 47.5 per cent stake in the project while Japan’s Mitsubishi and Sojitz Corp will take 37.5 per cent stake, while the remaining 15 percent stake will be held by a Sri Lankan company.

Conclusion

Pompeo’s emphasis – on the need for greater transparency in investments, US support for areas such as technology in the Indo-Pacific, and a more pro-active role for the private sector in the Indo-Pacific – all make sense. A lot will depend upon Donald Trump’s approach on critical geopolitical and economic issues, and whether he is able to take along key allies such as Japan. A lot will also depend upon relations of countries, especially Japan and India, with China. In recent months, Japan and India have been trying to recalibrate economic ties with Beijing (a number of Japanese companies are in fact participating in the BRI). While this in no way implies that the narrative of the Indo-Pacific will lose its relevance, it does remain to be seen whether Japan and India would put it on high priority.

Pompeo’s speech is interesting, and it remains to be seen how companies from other countries react and whether they explore the possibility of investing in big ticket connectivity projects.