PM Modi’s Singapore trip prompts rethink on BRI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hurried 36-hour visit to Singapore to attend the 13th East Asia Summit, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and other associated meetings of the ASEAN Summit compares with the full five working days from Monday to Friday that his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang will be camping in the port city with much the same engagements topping his itinerary.

However, Li needs much more time since he is also traveling purposively with a substantive economic agenda, which Beijing knows, is the ASEAN’s top priority. One highlight is the signing on Monday of an upgraded Free Trade Agreement between China and Singapore to include Belt and Road Initiative for the first time.

(Upgrade of China-Singapore FTA, Nov 12, 2018)

Beijing estimates that the FTA upgrade will deepen economic ties between China and the ASEAN countries as a whole. Indeed, Singapore, although a small nation is a hugely influential player in the ASEAN club. Singapore is China’s top source of FDI and in October China and Singapore had held an Investment Forum on BRI to explore joint projects in third countries.

Evidently, Beijing hopes to leverage Singapore as a key partner to enhance strategic trust with the ASEAN and to actively push for regional integration with a view to advance the mega project to make the East Asia free trade area a reality in a near future.

Logically, the ASEAN meetings this week in Singapore ought to have been exploited as a platform to revitalize the synergy developed in January in Delhi when India hosted the groupings leaders as honored guests at the Republic Day. But we are instead wandering into esoteric ventures – such as yet another joint-secretary level meeting of the ‘Quad’ in Singapore. This is tragi-comic. Modi should have told the bureaucrats to stand down instead of overshadowing his visit.

(India-ASEAN Summit, January 2018)

But India lacks a ‘big picture’ in the ASEAN region and is grandstanding. With China involving Japanese companies in something like 50 projects in the Asia-Pacific and with Singapore now becoming a gateway for China to tie up third country projects in the ASEAN region, the Asia-Pacific is transforming rapidly.

Canberra just unveiled a massive $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific to fund projects in neighboring countries like Fiji, Soloman Islands and Vanuatu lest these underlings in its sphere of influence embraced the BRI. Yet, on Monday, Fiji signed an MOU with China relating to cooperation within the framework of the BRI.

However, it now transpires that the state of Victoria in Australia too had signed an agreement with China on BRI in October. The Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews explained the benefits of the BRI agreement: “We have a very strong, very important economic partnership that’s all about jobs. It’s all about more products being exported around the world. If we can, through the infrastructure work that China is involved in offshore, if we can be exporting skills as well as giving businesses the opportunities to share in all that work, then I think that’s a good thing.”

Symptomatic of the winds of change in Asia-Pacific, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has adopted a gentler tone as he set out for Singapore to attend the ASEAN summits this week. According to the Japanese media,  Abe will now onward use the word “vision” while articulating on his concept of the “Indo-Pacific”. A Japanese government source explained, “The word ‘strategy’ could be taken to suggest an intention to defeat another country.”

An unnamed Japanese Foreign Ministry official told the media, “Some ASEAN members didn’t like the idea of having to make a choice between an Indo-Pacific strategy and the Belt and Road Initiative. We decided it wasn’t in our best interests to stick with the glaring image associated with ‘strategy.’”

All this goes to show that an entirely new geo-economic, geo-strategic landscape is taking shape in the Asia-Pacific. India needs to adjust, given the centrality it attributes to ASEAN (and within the ASEAN to Singapore.) Tokyo has outstripped Delhi by its decision to bandwagon with the BRI. How far Delhi moves to rethink on the BRI is the big question coming out of Modi’s current visit to Singapore to attend the ASEAN summit meetings. India is missing out on promising infrastructure opportunities and increased economic connectivity by its continued ambivalence toward the BRI.