India has snubbed RCEP and embraced QUAD. The US has managed to slice a wedge between the two Asian powers and postponed the return of Asia’s hegemony.
India has walked out of the The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). There are 10 Southeast Asian countries in the RCEP alongside South Korea, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. India could have been the only South Asian nation to shake things up in the new trade bloc. It has however put ego before trade, once again!
The behavior is like India’s boycott of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summits owing to tensions with Pakistan over the latter’s alleged unwillingness to stop terror activities.
With the RCEP snub, India wants to teach China a lesson and leave a vacuum which it has overestimated. For SAARC India is a need to have. RCEP has relegated India to a good to have.
India and China for decades have sought Asian supremacy. Had both countries treated each other as allies, Asian supremacy may have been a reality by now. There is a problem. Both countries want to get towards supremacy alone and have clashed both diplomatically and economically. Despite the competition, India and China are strong trading partners. India’s trade deficit with China narrowed to $48.66 billion in financial year 2020, down from $53.56 billion in 2018-19 and $63 billion in 2017-18. This was until relations took a turn for the worst in June 2020 when Indian and Chinese troops clashed in the Ladhak border in which 20 Indian soldiers were reportedly killed. The Indian administration responded by banning hundreds of Chinese platforms in India. This was followed by a call to boycott China. Chinese exports to India crashed by 24.7% in 2020 and trade by 18.6%.
Serial boycotts are not the kind of conduct small states like Sri Lanka expect from a regional power like India. Sri Lanka has traditionally relied on India’s lead in world affairs. That is becoming a thing of the past because smaller states know they can’t afford to throw tantrums like the big powers.
That is exactly why India must lead by example and engage with countries it disagrees with. Except for Iran, the US – a formidable diplomatic power does exactly that. India could take a leaf from the US textbook, because they now forge an all time high friendship. Japan, India’s QUAD ally too wants China checkmated in the Indian Ocean, but that hasn’t deterred Japan from joining the RCEP.
The QUAD, a security pact India fully endorses is aimed at securing the rules-based maritime order, particularly in the South China Sea and now the India Ocean. Realist scholars argue that a state’s positioning in the world order is dependent on its ability to secure the right balance of power. QUAD has gone one step further and declared its aim to clip the rise of China at any cost and tip the balance of power in China’s disfavour.
India’s approach to both a defense pact and a trade pact surprisingly appears to be the same. The risk however depends on how much India wants this confused policy application to be adopted by other states like Sri Lanka that rely on India for security and China for economic bailouts. Whatever India’s approach, its bargaining power in the international system is unparalleled. The smaller states India wants to emulate its behavior cannot afford that luxury.
International Relations scholar Hans Morganthau argued that any nation, European or Asian, that can optimize the enormous power potential of China would rule not only its region but the world. India could be that power Morganthau explained but one of India’s present-day ally the US has managed to slice a wedge between the two Asian powers. The wedge has delayed India and China becoming the world’s duopoly and even worse postponed the return of Asia’s hegemony.