It’s time for a million mutinies now across Asia
It will take lots more to walk the talk of economic diplomacy, when every nation is, rightly so, looking to maximising its own gain
Last week, coinciding with the bilateral visit of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Samsung Electronics announced a $760 million investment that will expand its existing operations in its unit in Uttar Pradesh and also make it the single largest cellphone manufacturing facility in the world.
Not only did this headline signal a reiteration of the growing and deepening of business and trade links between India and rest of Asia, it also tacitly endorsed the unprecedented potential the Indian market offers. It is exactly this subtext, often ignored in the noise of the conventional narrative defined around growing Chinese belligerence, which makes it difficult to ignore the ongoing makeover of economic diplomacy in Asia.
The process of change got a distinct fillip with the recent signing of the historic accord between President Donald Trump and the reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore. By formally rehabilitating what was otherwise a pariah state, the pieces on the existing chess board of Asian diplomacy are being reset. In one stroke, it revives the hope of a reunification of the two Koreas, something if it happens, could create a new power base in Asia. The actions of the US also implicitly endorse the view that there is no option but to engage with an otherwise sworn enemy; a playbook that India may care to peruse in its exasperating dealings with its rogue twin: Pakistan.
All this at a time when Asia has undoubtedly become the economic centre of the world. The incredible rise of China, preceded by the Asian miracle inspired by Japan and South Korea, and the slow and steady emergence of India from its self-imposed economic exile and the stagnation in the West is giving the region an enviable image as an attractive global economic destination.
In this rapidly altering backdrop, traditional tools of diplomacy, largely influenced by thinking shaped in the cold-war era may actually be redundant. President Trump’s actions are an extreme view, but, like it or not, out-of-the-box thinking is the new norm of global diplomacy. While such actions present an opportunity, they also, as it happened with PM Narendra Modi’s decision to undertake an impromptu stopover in Lahore to engage his then Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, present downside risks. But then, like the cliche goes, there is no gain without pain.
Based on feedback from within government, it does seem that the Pakistan adventure was not one off and that increasingly, a section of the Indian establishment is convinced of the need to revisit conventional diplomatic stances. In this context, engagement with Asia—including the new found format of informal exchanges with the Chinese leadership—seem to be a big priority with PM Modi’s regime.
President Moon’s visit was actually the 43rd by the head of state of an Asian country since 1 January 2016; outbound trips of PM Modi to Asia, in the same period, was 24. Together, it means that there were 77 bilateral engagements between PM Modi and his counterparts in Asia.
Obviously, it will take lots more to walk the talk of economic diplomacy, when every nation is, rightly so, looking to maximising its own gain.
The studiously ignored gorilla in the room is the China inspired One Belt One Road or OBOR initiative. At the moment, it is proceeding like a juggernaut drawing in every Asian country—including arch rival Pakistan and former allies like Nepal—into its fold. It is an ambitious project that has obvious overtones of Chinese mercantilism. At the same time, by merely opposing the project, India runs the risk of isolating itself—a stance that in the past forced it to eventually compromise and concede more ground than it intended in the trade negotiations preceding the setting up of the World Trade Organization.
There is merit in the argument that an established economic corridor of the gigantic proportions envisaged by OBOR can potentially create a security blanket—promoting zero tolerance to terrorist havens like the ones located across the border in Pakistan. After all, law and order cannot coexist with a terror network.
Clearly then, it makes sense to encourage a million mutinies inspired by Asian business in India and its neighbourhood. After all, nothing talks like money.
Anil Padmanabhan is executive editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus.
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