Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks out against protectionism

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India is ready to help lead a free and fair Indo-Pacific in a landmark speech Friday, issuing veiled critiques of the region’s two biggest players: the United States and China.

In a speech that was short on specifics but big on ambition and lofty rhetoric, Modi hailed Asia as the future of the world economy, while stressing unity between the region’s powers amid global economic uncertainty.

“(We must) recognize that each of us can serve our interests better when we work together as equals in the larger good of all nations,” said Modi during his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, an annual defense summit that draws security officials, academics and defense contractors from across the world.

Modi’s address marks the first time an Indian politician has been invited to open the annual summit and comes just months after he delivered the opening speech at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos in January.

Like he did at Davos, Modi championed the idea of free trade and economic integration, just days after US President Donald Trump slapped steel tariffs on some of Washington’s biggest economic partners. The move has sparked fears of a trade war.

“Solutions cannot be found behind walls of protection, but in embracing change,” said Modi. “What we seek is a level playing field for all. India stands for open and stable international trade regime.”

Underscoring his point, Modi argued that no nation can shape the world on its own. “It is a world that summons us to rise above divisions and competition to work together,” said Modi.

“We believe that our common prosperity and security require us to evolve, through dialogue, a common rules-based order for the region. And, it must equally apply to all individually as well as to the global commons,” he said.

Delicate balancing act

Modi is spending three days in the city-state following visits to Malaysia and Indonesia, a trip that analysts say is part of an effort to shore up ties with India’s neighbors as China seeks to expand its influence through its trillion dollar Belt and Road initiative.

“India shares geostrategic interests with the Southeast Asian countries,” said Bharat Karnad, a national security expert at the Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank.

“He’s firming up India’s security relationships without conspicuously targeting China,” said Karnard.

China’s Belt and Road project is meant to economically link much of Asia, but some — including many in New Delhi — believe Beijing is using the investments to expand its soft power and influence across the continent.

Despite India’s concerns regarding China’s motives when it comes to Belt and Road, relations between the world’s two most populous countries have strengthened in recent weeks after a tumultuous 2017 in which Beijing and New Delhi locked horns over a border dispute in the Himalayas.

Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in April for an informal two-day relationship-building summit in the Chinese city of Wuhan, an event widely interpreted as a diplomatic reset. Photographs of the two leaders showed them largely at ease, walking through the woods, drinking tea and enjoying a boat ride together.

“India-China cooperation is expanding. Trade is growing. And, we have displayed maturity and wisdom in managing issues and ensuring a peaceful border,” Modi said in his speech.

“I firmly believe that, Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together in trust and confidence.”

Despite the praise for its neighbor, India has long viewed China’s moves in the region with caution, especially the militarization of islands in the South China Sea, where trillions of dollars worth of trade pass through each year.

“India stands for a free, open, inclusive Indo-Pacific region, which embraces us all in a common pursuit of progress and prosperity. It includes all nations in this geography as also others beyond who have a stake in it,” Modi said.

“We should all be equally permitted to benefit from the use of common spaces on sea and in the air without discrimination. When we all agree to live by that code, our sea lanes will be pathways to prosperity and corridors to peace.”

Foreign speech, domestic audience

With faltering poll numbers back home, Modi’s keynote speech in Singapore provided the prime minister with the ideal platform in which to address a domestic audience and bolster his standing among voters.

“It’s part of his attempt to strengthen his reputation as a regional and international statesman who is listened to the world over,” said Karnad.

India is gearing up to go the polls, with elections expected before May next year. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) though still dominant nationally, has failed to meet expectations in recent local elections.

The BJP failed to gain a majority in mid-May’s state-level election in Karnataka, a contest seen as a key barometer in the lead up to the national vote and suffered a loss in a closely watched by-election in the critical state of Uttar Pradesh this week.

Addressing voters in India directly, Modi linked India’s global integration to domestic prosperity, promising to sustain the country’s economic growth rate of “7.5% to 8% per year” and transform India to “a New India by 2022.”