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With eye on China, Modi-Trump bhai bhai

Sachin Parashar | TNN | Updated: Jun 28, 2017, 08.53AM IST



The joint statement said nations must ensure respect for sovereignty and territorial integrityThe statement also refers to responsible debt financing practicesThis refers to the fears that South Asian nations could get trapped in debt by joining OBOR

NEW DELHI: The US having endorsedIndia's position on China's One Belt-One Road (OBOR) initiative is being seen by the government as a significant takeaway from the first Modi-Trump summit.

The India-US joint statementdeclared that nations, while promoting regional economic connectivity , must ensure respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. India has used the same argument to express its reservations over Beijing's gigantic, transcontinental connectivity and infrastructure initiative of which theChina Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a part.

As CPEC runs through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, India sees the project as infringement of its sovereignty.

However, while the statement underscored the significance of close partnership between the two countries for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, it refrained from making any specific mention of South China Sea (SCS), making do with a generic reference to freedom of navigation and overflight.

PM Narendra Modi and President Donald Trump committed to a set of common principles for the region in keeping with the UN charter, in which "sovereignty and international law" are respected and every country can prosper.

They reiterated the importance of respecting freedom of navigation, overflight and commerce throughout the region, also calling upon all nations to resolve territorial and maritime disputes in keeping with international law. More importantly for India, the joint statement said the two leaders supported bolstering regional economic connectivity through infrastructure development and "use of responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment".

The reference to responsible debt financing practices is significant given the fears that South Asian nations could get trapped in debt by joining OBOR. Inaugurating the OBOR conference last month, which was boycotted by India, Chinese president Xi Jinping had described CPEC as its "flagship" project. CPEC passes through the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region, thus undermining India's sovereignty.

Beijing will be happy that Modi and Trump did not name-check SCS even as they reiterated the significance of freedom of navigation.

"In the Indo-Pacific region, in order to maintain peace, stability and prosperity in the region, this is also another objective of our strategic cooperation," Modi told reporters at the White House Rose Garden after his meeting with Trump.

The decision to avoid mention of SCS, nearly 85% of which is claimed by China, will likely be seen as departure from attempts by Modi and former US President Barack Obama to internationalise the disputes in the SCS. After his initial bellicosity on China, Trump seems to have sobered down and his policy on SCS looks like a work in progress.

The Trump administration, in fact, is yet to carry out any freedom-of-navigation operation in the SCS. There were six such operations under Obama. India and the US had dropped any specific mention of SCS from the joint statement issued after the summit meet between Modi and Obama last year, close to completion of Obama's tenure.

In both their previous summits, in September 2014 and January 2015, Modi and Obama had mentioned SCS as they addressed the issue of maritime disputes and significance of freedom of navigation and overflight. The US-India Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, issued on January 25, had affirmed the importance of "safeguarding maritime security... freedom of navigation and overflight... especially in the South China Sea". In the run-up to the Modi-Trump meeting, Beijing had expressed hope that "other countries, especially non-regional ones, respect efforts by countries in the region to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea and play a constructive role in this regard".


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