Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue on June 1, 2018 though being a reaffirmation of India’s earlier policies and initiatives, was an amplification of India’s centrality in the international politics. India’s limited participation earlier in Asia’s premier security conference had made Modi’s speech highly anticipated. Yet, Modi’s advocation for India’s centrality in the Indian Ocean while playing a connecting role reaffirmed its desires to be the beacon of this region as China ramps up its Indian Ocean presence. This argument was supported by Modi’s highlighting the importance of India’s civilizational past through mentioning about one of the oldest ports of the world, Lothal in India. Being the common heritage of the region, Buddhism was hence cited as the regional link.
The speech emphasized on the growing importance of Indian Ocean, as the most prominent region for energy and mineral resources. The Indian Ocean connects the major parts of the international economy in the Northern Atlantic and Indo-Pacific, important for global trade and energy. Today, 90% of India’s trade and energy passes through this region with 80% of India’s Crude Oil Requirement which corresponds to 93% of its Sea dependence. Energy is hence required to sustain the 7.8%-8% growth per year, to secure employment and India’s growing economy. Yet, Indian Ocean earlier neglected was only prioritized after the 1990s under the Vajpayee and then Manmohan Singh lead governments. Narendra Modi was henceforth the first Indian Prime Minister to give the region the top precedence at the Mauritius speech in 2015 and putting its maritime security and growth under the banner of SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region). Modi advocated a need for trust and transparency, respect for international norms and rules, being sensitive to each other’s interests and peaceful resolution to maritime conflicts through cooperation reiterated in the speech. Modi avowed India’s vision for the Indo-Pacific as a “free, open, and inclusive” region, respecting sovereignty, equality, and territorial integrity with a common rule-based order. Considering Trump’s policies of protectionism and the on-going trade war between US and China, this was a major takeaway to build cooperation rather than divisions.
Moreover, Modi vouched for partnerships in the region based on shared values and interests. He spoke about the common challenges in the region, from mutual insecurities to growing military presence, external tensions, and trade competitions. Above all, with mutual un-ending challenges of terrorism and extremism, piracy, and ship robberies, no nation can secure its borders independently without any external support. Henceforth upholding the ideology of prosperity through peace and collaboration leading to a win-win situation. He talked about the connectivity projects in the region which “must promote trade, not strategic competition”. The connectivity infrastructures, must build bridges of trust, not strategic alliances conducted through “consultations, good governance, transparency, viability and sustainability”, which while empowering nations should not put them into un-ending debts. Indirectly hinting towards China’s debt burdens on few countries, he advocated for a prevention of the same. Moreover, this was a reiteration of India’s stance to oppose China’s BRI last year when New Delhi refused to attend China’s Belt and Road Initiative flagship summit in Beijing.
Yet, Modi cautioned by saying “Asia of rivalry will hold us all back”, and asserted “our friendships are not alliances of containment.” This assured that partnerships in the Indo-Pacific would not target any particular power to rival with it.
One of the major significances of the speech remains the emphasis on Southeast Asian region and the ASEAN centrality. While speaking of the region connecting the two oceans, he said “Inclusiveness, openness and ASEAN centrality and unity, therefore, lie at the heart of the new Indo-Pacific.” Most importantly, Modi was the first South Asian Prime Minister to advocate for ASEAN unity and centrality in the region. This was reiterated when Modi invited all the ASEAN country leaders for India’s Republic Day parade this year. His speech also indirectly hinted at QUAD, comprising of Australia, India, Japan, and US as not the sole defender of peace and security in the Indo-Pacific and heightened India’s requirements to play an enhanced role in the region. Modi hence made sure to portray the Indo-Pacific region as an all-encompassing region not limited to only certain members while the ASEAN countries are not sidelined. He also indirectly referred to China for its authoritative behavior in South China Sea and BRI projects while talking about “freedom of navigation, unhindered commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.” Through this, India most importantly took a balanced path between China and US. While downplaying QUAD, Modi suggested that India and China must work together as a requirement for the growth of the region with trust, confidence, and sensitivity as the two rising powers of Asia.
A shift from India’s deepening arrangements with US, Modi emphasized on its ‘Act East Policy.’ He highlighted India’s engagement with multilateral organizations like Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) etc. This reiterated India’s role as a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia. This was also supported by India’s growing connections with Africa, as an important part of the Indo-Pacific region.
The speech by Modi in the Shangri-La dialogue restated India’s desirable role as the spearhead of liberal international order. The speech moreover emphasized on the importance of peace, security, and cooperation through a rule-based order in the Indian Ocean. While assuring these values, India would not just support it but also its vows to uphold it the same. The speech also guaranteed India’s vision to balance between major powers, trilateral and multilateral organizations to ensure its own growth in harmony. This dialogue most prominently chalks out the importance of the region in India’s plural foreign policy, where India needs the region for its growth as much as the region requires India’s participation.