Is India in a “Talk East” limbo between its “Look East” and “Act East” policies? Will changing the name from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific actually see a shift in power to the “Indo” portion of that region? Does New Delhi have a coherent China policy?

These are some of the questions that have emerged after Narendra Modi’s keynote speech at Asia’s premier security conference, the Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore on Friday. As the first Indian prime minister to address the summit, Modi took the opportunity to articulate his vision for the region – and what role India ought to play in it.

“The foundations of the global order appear shaken,” Modi said. “And, the future looks less certain. For all our progress, we live on the edge of uncertainty, of unsettled questions and unresolved disputes; contests and claims; and clashing visions and competing models. It is a world that summons us to rise above divisions and competition to work together. Is that possible? Yes. It is possible.”

India’s vision

Modi summarised his vision for the Indo-Pacific region in the following points. According to him, India:

  • Stands for a “free, open, inclusive region, which embraces us all in a common pursuit of progress and prosperity”.
  • Believes “Southeast Asia is at centre” of the region and that the Association of South East Asian Nations, a multilateral grouping which India regularly engages with, is central to it.
  • Wants to see a rules-based order to evolve for the region. “Such an order must believe in sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as equality of all nations, irrespective of size and strength. These rules and norms should be based on the consent of all, not on the power of the few.”
  • Believes that “we should all have equal access as a right under international law to the use of common spaces on sea and in the air”.
  • Sees connectivity initiatives as vital, but only if they are based on “respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity”, among other things. Moreover, “they must empower nations, not place them under impossible debt burden. They must promote trade, not strategic competition”.
  • Believes “all of this is possible, if we do not return to the age of great power rivalries...Competition is normal. But, contests must not turn into conflict; differences must not be allowed to become dispute”.

Focus on China

You could read each of these points as a reference to China, which because of its economy, military power and recent expansionist behaviour, is the fulcrum around which all Asian policy currently pivots.

For example, references to a rules-based order and equal access to common spaces can be taken as comments about the South China Sea, a disputed region where its neighbouring nations have accused China of disregarding norms and actively changing the status quo.

Modi’s mention of connectivity initiatives that empower nations without putting them under a debt burden is a reference to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which India alone among major nations has publicly objected to. The Belt and Road Initiative is a development strategy through which Beijing helps fund land and maritime connections from China all the way to Europe. India has criticised it for violating its sovereignty – since a portion passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir – and for vastly adding to partner countries’ debt, an approach that India believes helped China secure long-term strategic presence in Sri Lanka.

None of this is new for India, although Modi’s statement is a reminder of the principles New Delhi would like to espouse, enunciated at one of the most prominent platforms for foreign policy discussions in Asia.

Just a wish list

It is hard to see how the bullet points could possibly be anything more than an Indian wish list for the region. With the world in flux because of United States President Donald Trump, and India heading into an election year, it seems unlikely that New Delhi will stick its neck out on anything concrete that can anger China.

Indeed, just last month, Modi held an informal summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping which was taken as something of a reset of India-China ties after the tense border standoff at Doklam. At the same time, the US has been trying to expand its partnership with India in the hope that it will act as a counter to China in the region. Just this week, the US renamed the Pentagon’s Pacific Command to the Indo-Pacific Command, saying it keeps a watch over a region that encompasses everything from “Hollywood to Bollywood.”

Yet, India has been reluctant to expand its trilateral US-India-Japan naval exercises to include Australia, an American ally that is also concerned about Chinese expansion. And, to add to the contradictions, New Delhi is all set to buy S-400 air defence systems from Russia later this year, despite US concerns over the deal and the fact it might lead to American sanctions against India.

Some might see this as the most pragmatic way for India to handle the situation, in line with its history as a non-aligned power, since it is attempting to walk the tightrope between the US and China. Others might take it as a signal that New Delhi still does not have a coherent policy for Southeast Asia and China, despite the “Act East” policy having been around for four years.

Leader or role model?

Modi’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue certainly reflects India’s willingness to assert the principles it sees as being crucial for the region to prosper. But is New Delhi prepared to do anything to enforce those principles? The US might want it to, China would naturally oppose it, but New Delhi is more likely to be entirely caught up in domestic politics to attempt anything more ambitious than a stern speech or two.

The tone of the prime minister’s speech reflected this. He spoke of India as a role model for the region, without any suggestion of New Delhi actually taking the lead. And he concluded saying:

“This world is at a crossroads. There are temptations of the worst lessons of history. But there is also a path of wisdom. It summons us to a higher purpose: to rise above a narrow view of our interests and recognise that each of us can serve our interests better when we work together as equals in the larger good of all nations. I am here to urge all to take that path.”    

Urging Southeast Asia and China to take the high road might be a fine sentiment, but it is unlikely to have much bearing on how the countries of the region actually behave. For now, it seems, India is stuck with “Talk East” above anything else.