Hugging for India’s security

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugged US President Barack Obama in New Delhi, it marked what could be the distant opening bell of a great geopolitical game.

PRESIDENT Barack Obama had not been off the plane for more than a few minutes last Sunday when the first major event of his visit to India occurred: He and Prime Minister Narendra Modi embraced, like old friends, in front of a bank of cameras.

The crawl on NDTV, an Indian news channel, changed to “MODI/OBAMA HUG”, because this was not expected.

President Xi Jinping of China had gotten a “firm handshake” last September when Modi invited him to a banquet in his native Gujarat for his birthday.

Obama had also merited the same treatment when he and Modi first met in September in Washington.

That Obama had been upgraded on Sunday was confirmed several hours later, when the two men embraced a second time at the end of a news conference.

Modi has been known to hug other leaders whom he considers trusted partners: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and, more recently, Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia.

There has been a lot of talk about personal chemistry during Obama’s visit in India, but Modi is extremely careful about the signals he sends.

So let me suggest the following way of understanding this development: as a “quadrilateral security hug”.

Eight years ago, India signed up for the “quadrilateral security dialogue”, an experiment that included Australia, Japan and the United States – but not China.

Introduced by Abe and endorsed by Dick Cheney, the vice-president of the United States at the time, the effort eventually drew in Singapore and culminated in joint military exercises in the Bay of Bengal on a scale never previously seen in the region, anchored by an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Nimitz.

It didn’t last long.

Even before the four countries convened for their first joint meeting, China had sent formal diplomatic protests to Washington, New Delhi, Canberra and Tokyo, complaining of what some called a “mini-Nato”.

Less than two years later, at a summit meeting with China, Australia announced that it was withdrawing from the quadrilateral dialogue.

Abe left office after that. So did Cheney. Indian policymakers had been ambivalent to begin with. After that, the idea died on the vine.

But Modi appears interested in reviving some version of the project.

When he met with Obama for one-on-one talks on Sunday, the first 45 minutes of their conversation were dominated by an animated discussion of China.

The two countries then issued a joint statement on a “strategic vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region”, something India had refused to do in the past, fearing it would be read as hostile to China.

This may be the biggest surprise to come out of this meeting, and it tells us several things about Modi’s intentions.

One is that he has set aside, at least for the moment, his early vision of striking an economic grand bargain with China, the only country capable of injecting tens of billions of dollars for a much-needed modernisation of India’s infrastructure.

Returning to the bargaining table with Beijing after Sunday’s statement will be tricky.

And he is willing to imagine an expansive security role that stretches “from Africa to East Asia”, as the statement put it, a notion that dates back to the days of the British Raj, said Ashok Malik, a columnist who advised Modi’s campaign last year.

“America is looking at developing India into a net security provider” in the Indo-Pacific area, he said.

“I think Modi recognises that if India doesn’t step up to that role, China will fill the vacuum.”

In the coming months, this idea will submerge into the bureaucracies of both countries, which will take up such matters as India’s membership in the Asia-Pacific Economic and Co-operation group and interoperability between the two countries’ armed forces.

It is not likely to go away, though. Over the last three days, absent a single ground-breaking announcement, Indian news outlets have fixated on any number of details: the sight of Obama chewing gum, possibly Nicorette, at the Republic Day parade; amusement at the news that Modi wore a suit whose pin-stripes were actually tiny lines of script spelling out his name.

But let us not discount the possibility that the hug between the two leaders, for the seconds that it lasted, could be the distant opening bell of a great game. — ©2015 The New York Times

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