Global attention that is both transient and fickle is currently focused on the G20 summit at Hangzhou that is being seen as Chinese President Xi Jinping's Olympic equivalent. The 2008 Beijing Games were the high point of the Hu Jintao era. But alas, the Xi script seems to have gone awry.
Early reports dwelled on the unseemly exchange between Chinese and US officials over the protocols related to US President Barack Obama's arrival and an intriguing visual showing him disembarking from the underbelly of Air Force One. Predictably, social media was shrill and one post that was particularly unsavory noted: "Apparently Obama is treated like shit in Hangzhou."
This G20 summit being hosted by China is rich in symbolism of different shades and the fact that it comes soon after an international tribunal rejected Beijing's South China Sea (SCS) claim and upheld that of the Philippines is only the more visible. The extended western Pacific littoral from Japan down to Singapore exudes varying degrees of anxiety about China's maritime assertiveness and all eyes are on Obama and the credibility of the US "pivot" to Asia.
China's inflexible stance on the SCS and its rejection of both international law and customary practice apropos freedom of navigation became the dominant issue on the opening day of the G20 Summit and overshadowed the more substantive climate change agreement. The summit leaders have a prickly challenge ahead of them — how to raise the SCS issue with Xi and to encourage Beijing to work towards a modus vivendi.
Domestic public opinion is a critical determinant for all the SCS stakeholders and the US is an involved party both due to its global military profile and the security umbrella it provides to some of the regional countries with whom it has a formal alliance. How the SCS will be addressed — or erased from the final G20 summit document — will provide a cue about the nature of the major power relationship over the short-term and the degree to which the Xi doctrine of muscular assertiveness will be "appeased" or resisted.
The contrast to the G20 deliberations was on display at a more modest event — the Indian Ocean Conference 2016 (IOC2016) in Singapore September 1-2 under the aegis of the India Foundation, a recently established think-tank with BJP Secretary Ram Madhav at the helm. The other organisers included the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore, the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS), Dhaka, and the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Colombo. This two-day event was significant for it marks the first time that India has mounted a Track-II event of this scale with a maritime focus.
Indian political participation included three cabinet ministers of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, a former UPA minister and members of parliament. Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar provided a comprehensive overview of the current Indian orientation on the Indian Ocean.
The invitee list included the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, the Foreign Ministers of Bangladesh, Singapore and Vietnam, culture ministers from other Asean states, the former President of Maldives and official representation by the US, France, Japan and Taiwan. This was described by a local diplomat as a subtle demonstration of India's appeal and the ability to draw such political participation on the eve of the G20 Summit. The final tally was 21 countries and over 50 speakers who addressed the 3Cs — Comity, Commerce and Culture — in the Indian Ocean and its littoral.
Shakti Sinha, Director of the India Foundation, highlighted the rationale and objective of IOC2016 as one that "is intended to help the Indian Ocean stakeholders initiate the development of platforms that would facilitate cooperative behaviour and minimise risks of misunderstanding and conflict... apprehensions about unilateral attempts to re-order regional arrangements are unsettling and showing no signs of abating."
The continuing turbulence in the SCS that pits China against some Asean states and further north between China and Japan is reflective of maritime tensions that "show no sign of abating" and the G20 summit is an appropriate forum for the leaders to engage in candid closed-door deliberations that will help make the situation more malleable to consensual resolution.
New Delhi has been consistent in supporting normative principles at sea and has accepted international arbitration on its maritime boundary dispute with Bangladesh.
At Singapore, Jaishankar reiterated what New Delhi has maintained for over a decade: "India supports freedom of navigation and overflight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). India also believes that states should resolve disputes through peaceful means without threat or use of force and exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes affecting peace and stability."
Without exception, every political invitee to IOC2016 made much the same plea -- that peaceful resolution through sustained dialogue and self-restraint by the major power in a dispute should from the core of the proposed code of conduct. The Indian Ocean littoral is adhering to these tenets by practice and this may offer some cues to the seas on the other side of the Malacca that are currently roiled.
The juxtaposition of IOC2016 with the G20 summit may be more coincidence than devious design -- but the contrast of the maritime tenor is unmistakable. At Singapore, many delegates shared their concern and helplessness in the face of an assertive and "bullying" China and added that their governments were looking at the G20 deliberations with interest to get a sense about how the US and India would position themselves in relation to the SCS and related maritime issues.
For the Modi government, the larger maritime objective is contained in the acronym Sagar (Security And Growth for All in the Region). India is seen as a more benign and accommodating power that is able to contribute to the common public good in the Indian Ocean region. However, New Delhi has to sustain this initiative and harmonise the other fora it has nurtured -- namely, IORA (Indian Ocean Regional Association), IONS (Indian Ocean Naval Symposium) and the Bay of Bengal cooperative effort.
Sustainable growth in the extended Indo-Pacific continuum can be nurtured only if China is a willing and consensual partner. To that extent, the current G20 and the forthcoming EAS (East Asia Summit) and the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summits should be utilised to persuade Beijing to live up to the self-image it seeks to project at Hangzhou.