Pivoting to the West of Malacca

Pivoting to the West of Malacca

‘What is in a name?’ – one might ask. There could be a lot. In Washington on the fateful day of May 20, President Barack Obama decided to use the name Myanmar to refer to what he previously insisted on calling «Burma». 

The geopolitics of the Indian Ocean will never be the same again. The White House spokesman Jay Carney explained that the United States would be henceforth «as a courtesy in appropriate setting, more frequently using the name Myanmar». 

Diplomacy is indeed largely courtesy and the «appropriate setting» was the visit by President Thein Sein to the White House, which signified the formal launch of the US’ rebalancing strategy to the west of the Malacca Strait. 

A common thread

Even as Thein Sein visited Washington, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in Delhi. From Delhi, Li headed for Islamabad. Meanwhile, Thein Sein returned to Naypyidaw just in time to receive Shinzo Abe, the first visit by a Japanese prime minister to Myanmar since 1977. And no sooner than Abe got back to Tokyo, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived in the Japanese capital on a 3-day visit. 

Indeed, neighboring Beijing also received a visitor from South Asia on the day Manmohan arrived in Tokyo – Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse. The spectacle got rounded off on Saturday at a security conference in Singapore that also brought the US defence secretary Chuck Hagel to the region. The common thread that ran through all this congested diplomatic traffic in the past fortnight was the rise of China and the US’ rebalancing strategy. 

Thein Sein was the first head of state from «Burma» to visit Washington in 47 years. A big slice of history drifted away, marked by deep chill and total breakdown of relations between the two countries. The lifting of US sanctions and the conclusion of a trade and investment framework agreement enable US companies to invest in Myanmar, which is the last frontier in the scramble for mineral resources. The economic spinoff can be mutually beneficial. 

Myanmar gets income, investment and integration into the world economy, while the US hopes to reassert its presence in a region that is crucial to the rebalancing strategy. The strengthening of ties with Myanmar helps Washington to contain China, which visualizes Myanmar as a vital communication link connecting the Indian Ocean – a route that bypasses the Malacca Strait…

Sitting in an important area

Abe’s mission to Myanmar supplemented Obama’s overture to Thein Sein. Japan also aims to erode China’s economic presence in Myanmar. Japan has no legacy of sanctions that Abe needed to put behind and there has been a dramatic jump in the Japanese economic presence in Myanmar lately. Abe took with him more than 100 Japanese businessmen. 

He agreed to write off another $1.74 billion in debt in addition to the $3.4 billion in arrears owed by Myanmar that was waived off last year. Abe also pledged a new aid package of $500 million for infrastructure and power projects. Kyodo news agency noted Abe’s visit «could counter China’s strong influence» in Myanmar. In the Japanese assessment, Beijing overestimated its political and economic clout in Myanmar and is facing growing dissatisfaction in that country, which Tokyo can exploit by making investments and creating job opportunities and presenting a more systematic and credible way of doing business. 

Hardly six months into his spectacular return to power, Abe is creating waves in the region west of the Malacca Strait. Taking note of China’s rising influence in Sri Lanka, the «teardrop in the Indian Ocean», he moved to safeguard Japan’s traditional ties with the island. Abe invited President Rajapaksa to Tokyo in March. The joint statement issued after the talks said,

«The two leaders acknowledged that, as maritime countries, Japan and Sri Lanka had a responsibility to play important roles for the stability and prosperity of the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. In this regard, the two leaders shared the view that Sri Lanka, being located on the Indian Ocean sea lanes and having a potential to be a maritime hub of the region, would play a crucial and positive role among the international community. Prime Minister Abe expressed his intention that Japan would continue to provide necessary assistance to Sri Lanka’s efforts to that end.» 

Sri Lanka will henceforth allow port calls by Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force vessels and the two countries decided to cooperate in maritime security. Japan signed a loan package of 41 billion Yen for Sri Lanka. 

Abe swiftly followed up in early May by deputing Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and Senior Vice Minister of Finance Uko Obuchi to Colombo (as part of a South Asian tour). Kyodo cited Aso pledging Tokyo will support Colombo’s efforts to improve its coast guard, as the South Asian country «sits in a geopolitically important area.» 

Petty burglars

However, it is Abe’s aggressive pursuit of stronger ties with India that falls in a category by itself and provokes China to no end. Abe’s agenda is two-fold: bilateral engagement and trilateral cooperation alongside the US. Indeed, the US also visualizes India as the «lynchpin» of its rebalancing strategy. A whole new coinage has appeared in the strategic discourses – «Indo-Pacific,» which connotes that the US, Japan and India actually belong to a common strategic space. 

Abe has successfully wooed India by resuming negotiations for an agreement in nuclear cooperation despite the debris of Fukushima and by making huge investments in India’s technology sector and infrastructure. Without doubt, China is a focal point for Tokyo in the expanding framework of strategic partnership with India. India has been playing it cool and a delicate game of hedging was on. 

Delhi’s preference has been to leverage the relationship with Japan to secure an optimal position in negotiations with China, a game that the mandarins in Delhi have perfected over the years. But that may be about to change. The recrudescence of border tensions following China’s troop incursions in mid-April has changed the alchemy of regional politics. The anxieties regarding Chinese intentions gnaw Indian mind and the pundits in Delhi are clamoring for a concord with Japan and the US. 

Abe is highly regarded in Delhi and «Abepolitik» appeals to the Indian nationalistic sensibility. Manmohan said in Tokyo, «India and Japan are natural and indispensable partners» and the two countries should place «particular importance on intensifying political dialogue and strategic consultations and progressively strengthening defense relations.» 

The alacrity with which Beijing reacted to Manmohan’s words drew attention to the new cadence in the Indian voice. The ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily lashed out at Japanese leaders, terming them «petty burglars» trying to cash in on the transient India-China disharmony. The Global Times newspaper noted that India and Japan are close to signing a deal to supply amphibious US-2 planes to India and that it would mark a strengthening of the alliance between Japan and India in terms of defence and military cooperation. 

The daily accused Japan of trying to take advantage of the border tensions between India and China and to contain the latter with the possible military sale. 

But Beijing isn’t far behind Abe in wooing India. The new Chinese leadership made an extraordinary gesture by picking India for Li’s first visit abroad as premier. Li offered a «handshake across the Himalayas» to the Indians during his 3-day visit and proposed a «strategic consensus and cooperation» between the two countries. Delhi chose to mull over it but is far from disinterested. 

National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon will be visiting Beijing in coming days, followed by Defence Minister A. K. Antony and Manmohan himself. There is ample scope for the two countries to ponder over what happened on the disputed border and to negotiate the irreducible minimum needed to preserve mutual trust in relations. Beijing appreciates that it is not in India’s DNA to jettison its independent foreign policy and to be shepherded into alliances and blocs. It is largely up to Beijing not to drive Delhi into a Japanese and/or American embrace. 

By slotting Pakistan as the second leg of Li’s foreign tour, Beijing signaled that China’s glorious relationship with that country is no longer «India-centric». Li had the principal objective of preserving the uniqueness of the Sino-Pak relationship at a historic juncture when Pakistan is in transition and there are very many uncertainties surrounding its future. 

He made two proposals aimed at strengthening China’s strategic presence in the Indian Ocean – promoting the building of a China-Pakistan economic corridor from the Persian Gulf across Pakistan to western China and maritime cooperation with Pakistan. 

However, out of the entire flurry of Chinese engagements through the past fortnight, it was Rajapaksa’s visit to Beijing that proved most substantial and specific. To be sure, China-Sri Lanka relationship is fast expanding and Beijing senses that it holds potential to acquire something of the verve of China’s «all-weather friendship» with Pakistan. 

During Rajapaksa’s visit, China extended a huge $2.2 billion loan package to Sri Lanka in the infrastructure sector and has announced wide-ranging Chinese participation in Colombo’s ambitious program to transform Sri Lanka into another Singapore. Beijing finds the buoyancy of the Sri Lankan economy quite encouraging for stepping up investments. The two countries have afreed to conclude an FTA. 

During Rajapaksa’s visit, Beijing «upgraded» the ties with Colombo to one of «strategic cooperative partnership» and the two countries decided to step up military and security cooperation. 

A minimalist agenda

The unspoken running theme of this extraordinary string of events in a packed fortnight finally surged to make its appearance in flesh and blood in an «exchange» at the weekend security conference in Singapore. 

Hagel, upon the conclusion of his speech at the conference, was openly challenged by a Chinese general to explain the US military’s Asia pivot. The general said the Obama administration’s new focus on the Pacific has been widely interpreted as an "attempt to counter China's rising influence and to offset the increasing military capabilities of the Chinese PLA. However, China is not convinced." In pointed remarks, the Chinese general asked Hagel how he can assure China that the increased US deployments to the region are part of an effort to build a more positive relationship with Beijing.

The point is, China is making sure in front of the regional audience of defence ministers and security experts that it is easily provoked. And, arguably, the fear of China getting provoked may already be working on many Asian minds. The heart of the matter is that so long as the Chinese economy continues to grow, its interdependency develops with it for the other Asian economies. After all, there is a limit to how much Japan or the US can aid its regional parties if the latter got into a flashpoint with China. 

Indeed, the Obama administration is also causing misgivings in the minds of the Asians by ostentatiously wooing the new leadership in Beijing as a stakeholder in global partnership. There has been a constant flow of senior officials from Washington to the Chinese capital in recent weeks and the dramatic initiative to hold a US-China summit in California later this week took Asia-Pacific by surprise. 

Besides, Beijing’s big advantage is that in the emergent power dynamic, it has a minimal agenda – namely, deny Japan or the US the scope to recruit the countries of the region to join any containment strategy directed against China. It is not a tall Chinese demand for most countries of the region – including for a traditional ally of the US like South Korea or an old adversary of China like Vietnam. On the other hand, it is simply not enough for the US or Japan if other Asian countries remained fence sitters. Clearly, time works to China’s advantage. 

Countries such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka or Pakistan would perceive the advantages in maintaining a relative balance among the big powers with a view to win economic and technical support and assistance from both China and the west. Thein Sein most certainly grasped the import of Obama’s momentous decision to call his country by its proper name. Rajapaksa has secured much negotiating space already vis-à-vis an overbearing India. Pakistan feels emboldened to resist the US pressure. 

Manmohan would also see that while the partnering with Japan in strategy and security is all very well as a long-term goal, India’s near term priority lies in generating a peaceful environment in which development becomes possible. Japan lags far behind China as India’s partner in trade and investment. 

India’s advantage lies in factoring in the high level of US-China interdependency and the lack of clarity as yet that Abe is Japan and «Abepolitik» is for all time.