Published Twice a Month
April 11, 2018 - April 24, 2018

Centre on Asia and Globalisation
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Guest Column

The battle of discourses? Infrastructure and connectivity in Asia

By Susanne Kamerling 

Shanghai in sunset 

         China has begun to realise that they have so far not been very successful internationally with getting across their foreign policy concepts.. In fact, the difficulty of translating and communicating Chinese concepts to international audiences has been a source of frustration for officials in China. [1] Consequently, Beijing sought to address this challenge in its 13th five-year plan during the National Party Congress in 2016:

We will expand our networks for overseas communication and use a greater variety of channels and methods for such communication. … We will develop a system of discourse based on Chinese cultural characteristics that fits with both international practice as well as the unique characteristics of individual countries, and work to increase the accessibility of China’s cultural communication through the use of more vibrant and diverse methods of expression.[2]

These initiatives aim to expand China’s international influence as well as its weight in international discourse.[3] It is evident that China has come to acknowledge the power and politics of discourse and its own challenges in that regard.

         Indeed, many of the foreign policy concepts that are so typical of Beijing’s political culture – from Jiang Zemin’s ‘three represents’ to Hu Jintao’s ‘harmonious world’ and Xi’s ‘four comprehensives’ – have failed to gain traction internationally. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – formerly known as One Belt One Road (OBOR) – is the first Chinese foreign policy concept that has really resonated internationally and is being discussed extensively in foreign capitals around the world, particularly in the regions included in Xi’s flagship megaproject. China’s growing international power and ambition are probably reasons why this concept is being taken more seriously, but the BRI is also an discursive tool that could have major implications for many other countries. Infrastructure projects and connectivity initiatives are the latest political tools for exerting influence in the broader Asian region and beyond.[4] They have become the catchphrases of many countries in Asia that want to sustain or increase their economic growth, improve their interconnectedness and mobility, attract FDI, and increase focus on countries in the region rather than on the US and Europe. India’s ‘Act East Policy’ and its appointment of Japan as its ‘special partner’ illustrates this focus well. The India-Japan Strategic Partnership is flourishing and looks set to continue. But there is more to it. Both India and Japan have long realised that words matter on the international stage and the most powerful player often gets to dominate the discourse. They realise that putting forward counternarratives on connectivity in the region are a soft way of countering Beijing, or at least, prevent it from being able to dominate the tone and agenda.   

         Partly as a response to Beijing’s activity in the region, such as the setting up of the Asia Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) and the implementation of BRI projects within China’s spheres of influence, both New Delhi and Tokyo have recently put forward their own connectivity discourses and initiatives, and joined the plethora of infrastructural initiatives that dominate the political agendas in Asia. Japan has announced the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’ that views the Indian and Pacific Oceans as one comprehensive strategic theatre and India as an important strategic anchor. Japan and India have taken similar normative positions towards the maritime domain in the region: they both advocate an open, free, stable and safe maritime theatre based on a liberal order that supports the US as an extra regional power. Frameworks that aim at improving regional connectivity and maritime security like the recently revived Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (‘Quad’) deliberately involve the maritime democracies of Japan, India, Australia and the US. Infrastructure export is moreover a key part of Abe’s strategy, not only for domestic economic growth but also to build partnerships in the region to counterbalance China’s inroads into the Indo-Pacific. This can be seen in Prime Minister Abe’s announcement of the ‘Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ (EPQI). Japan and India have also envisioned an ‘Asia-Africa Growth Corridor’ (AAGC) that is supposed to build an Asia-Africa economic bloc.[5]

         However, despite its quickly evolving ‘Act East Policy’, and Modi’s proactive outreach to Japan and many other countries in the region, India is not yet in the position to play a leadership role outside its immediate surroundings. Limited capacities also inhibit India’s ability to launch grand initiatives. However, Delhi has embraced the Indo-Pacific construct, the EPQI, AAGC and the Quad, and aspires to co-shape the regional order. India has become more maritime-centric than ever before and Prime Minister Modi has recently underlined how indispensable the Indo-Pacific is to India’s future.[6] New Delhi focuses on strengthening multilateral fora in the Indian Ocean region like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and has initiated several infrastructure projects like investments in the Chabahar port in Iran that allows it to bypass Pakistan for access to Central Asia. An Indian scholar recently argued that Europe should also proactively use the ‘Indo-Pacific’ concept instead of the ‘Asia Pacific’ “because it brings on India.”[7] In short, it is clear that Japan and India are looking for new, non-Sino-centric modes of cooperation in the region, and they are acutely aware of which narratives are being used, and by whom. Perhaps the battle of discourses has just begun.

[1] The author was present at a conference at Brookings-Tsinghua in Beijing when these remarks were made.

[2] “The 13th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development of the People’s Republic of China (2016-2020)” (Beijing, China: National People’s Congress (NPC), 2016), 195.

[3] “China’s NPC Approves 13th Five Year Plan,” National People’s Congress of China 1 (Beijing: The People’s Congresses Journal, 2016), 16,

[4] Susanne Kamerling, “China’s Security Governance Conception for Asia: Perspectives from India,” in China-India-Japan in the Indo-Pacific: Ideas, Interests and Infrastructure, eds. Jagannath Panda and Titli Basu (New Delhi, India: Pentagon Press, 2018), 47–63.

[5] Jagannath P. Panda and Titli Basu, “Introduction,” in China-India-Japan in the Indo-Pacific: Ideas, Interests and Infrastructure (New Delhi, India: Pentagon Press, 2018), 9–14.

[6] ibid., 18-19.

[7] “Reimagining Europe’s Partnerships with India and Japan,” (Expert Roundtable Discussion, the Clingendael Institute, the Hague, Netherlands, April 6, 2018).

Susanne Kamerling is Researcher and Lecturer at the International Relations and International Organisation Department of the University of Groningen and Associate Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations ‘Clingendael’ in The Hague. She was Visiting Fellow at Tsinghua University, Beijing and at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), New Delhi. 


The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or the National University of Singapore.


News Reports

Bilateral relations

China fails to get Indian support for Belt and Road ahead of summit
Reuters, April 24
China failed to get India’s support for its ambitious Belt and Road infrastructure project at the end of a foreign ministers’ meeting of a major security bloc on Tuesday (April 24), ahead of an ice-breaking trip to China this week by India’s prime minister. Whether or not China will be able to bring India round to Belt and Road will likely be a key measure of the success of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to China to meet Xi for an informal meeting on Friday and Saturday (April 27-28).

Doklam happened due to lack of mutual trust: China
The Times of India, April 24
The Doklam standoff happened due to “lack of mutual trust” between India and China, and they need to work together to create favourable conditions and gradually settle the boundary issue, a top Chinese diplomat said on Tuesday (April 24), ahead of this week’s informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China ready to work with India to expand cooperation: Foreign Ministry
Xinhuanet, April 18
China is ready to work with India to expand their practical cooperation and make new and bigger development in bilateral ties, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson said here Wednesday (April 18). China-India relations have developed positively this year, Hua Chunying said at a routine press briefing, adding that China will work with India to maintain high-level exchanges, expand practical cooperation, and properly manage and control their differences.

India may lose aircraft carrier edge over China
The Economic Times, April 16 
China is set to begin preliminary sea trials of its second aircraft carrier within a month or so, even as it steams ahead with plans to also construct mammoth nuclear-powered ones, signalling its hard-nosed intent to project military power on the high seas in the years ahead. India is currently making do with just one aircraft carrier in the shape of the 44,400-tonne INS Vikramaditya, the refurbished Admiral Gorshkov inducted from Russia for $2.33 billion in November 2013.

NSA Doval holds meeting with top Chinese official in Shanghai
Hindustan Times, April 13
National security advisor AK Doval met one of China’s top diplomats Yang Jiechi on Friday (April 13) in Shanghai as the two countries stepped up efforts to smoothen ties ahead of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in June expected to be attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The two top officials are learnt to have held wide-ranging discussions on the current state of bilateral ties as the two countries attempt to shake off the unease and suspicion generated from the military standoff at Doklam, near the Sikkim border, last year.

All issues taken up with China: India on NSG entry
Hindustan Times, April 12
In the backdrop of China’s continued efforts to block its entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), India on Thursday (April 12) said it has taken up with Beijing all issues concerning it during the recent Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Dialogue between the two sides. “Both at the working level and at different interactions, we have, the issues which are of concern to us, taken up with the Chinese side,” Raveesh Kumar, spokesperson, Ministry of External Affairs, said.

News Reports

China and India in the Regions

China reassures Pakistan on ties ahead of Xi’s meeting with India’s Modi
Reuters, April 23
China on Monday (April 23) reassured Pakistan that relations between the two countries were as firm as ever and would “never rust”, ahead of a meeting this week between President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that could unnerve Islamabad.

China moots India-Nepal-China economic corridor through Himalayas
The Times of India, April 18
China on Wednesday proposed construction of India-Nepal-China economic corridor with multi-dimensional connectivity through the Himalayas as it seeks to expand its influence over the new Nepalese government headed by Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli, widely regarded as pro-Beijing. China’s proposal came after visiting Nepalese foreign minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali held talks with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

With eye on China, India and UK seek secure, open Indo-Pacific region
Livermint, April 18
India and the UK on Wednesday (April 18) called for a secure, free, open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific, amidst China flexing its military muscles in the strategically vital region. The two countries, in a joint statement, said they share a global outlook and commitment to a rules-based international system that strongly opposes unilateral actions that seek to undermine that system through force or coercion.

India seeks Asian leadership in Commonwealth as trade grows
Nikkei Asian Review, April 18
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Britain this week to meet with Commonwealth leaders as New Delhi envisions a greater role as an Asian power in the group of 53 members spread across the globe. The Commonwealth offers a favorable framework for India, given that China is not a member and would not hinder New Delhi’s agenda.

India must look towards US, not Russia & China: US Under Secretary Mark Menezes 
The Economic Times, April 16
As the US steps up the heat on Russia through sanctions and now missile strikes into Syria, the message from Washington to New Delhi is equally clear that countries like India should start looking at the US differently. Ahead of the key strategic energy partnership dialogue, US Under Secretary of Energy Mark Menezes told The Economic Times that it’s important for countries like India to not let Russia and China gain over the US in these areas.

China, India Extend Grace Periods for Mozambique Debt Repayments
Bloomberg, April 16
China and India extended the grace periods granted to Mozambique for repayment of more than $2.2 billion of debt, the southern African nation’s Finance Ministry said. The two countries agreed to the extensions in talks last year, Stelia Neta, deputy national director of the ministry, said in an emailed response to questions. In addition, China agreed to forgive $34 million of debt, she said.

News Reports

Trade and Economy

India claims top spot for 2018 growth among major economies: Reuters poll
Reuters, April 19
India will claim the top spot among the world’s fastest-growing major economies this year, but rising trade tensions between the United States and China may restrain that growth, a Reuters poll of economists showed. The recent tit-for-tat import tariffs imposed by the U.S. and China have raised concerns about a full-fledged global trade war which could throw an otherwise-strong world economy off-course. Twenty of 29 economists who answered an extra question said India’s economy will be hurt by the ongoing trade dispute.

India likely to grow at 7.4% in 2018, China to lag behind at 6.6%: IMF
The Indian Express, April 17
India is expected to grow at 7.4 per cent in 2018 and 7.8 per cent in 2019, leaving its nearest rival China behind respectively at 6.6 and 6.4 per cent in the two years, the IMF said today (April 17). With growth picking up after falling sharply in the second quarter of 2017 due to “one-off factors”, India in 2018 and 2019 would re-emerge as one of the fastest growing major economies, it said.

India refuses to take sides in US-China trade spat, says New Delhi supports rules-based multilateral order
Firstpost, April 15
India on Sunday (April 15) said it would not take sides in the ongoing trade spat between US and China amid differences with Beijing over its controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Remarks by NITI Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar came as he held the fifth Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) dialogue with his Chinese counterpart He Lifeng, the chairman of China’s top planning body the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) on Saturday (April 14).

After China, now US to review eligibility of trade preference for India 
The Economic Times, April 14
The United States will review if India’s exports need any preferential access to its market, potentially impacting nearly 3,500 goods including mechanical and electrical machinery, organic and inorganic chemicals, plastics and vegetables that get duty free access to the world’s biggest market. Washington has announced eligibility review of India for the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), a sort of quota for each country at zero or low duty, along with that for Indonesia and Kazakhstan.

5th India-China Strategic Economic Dialogue held
The Times of India, April 14
Officials from India and China on Saturday explored the possibility of aligning the ‘Make in India Initiative’ and ‘Made in China 2025’ in different sectors of economy. At the same time, Indian officials led by Rajiv Kumar, vice-chairman of NITI Aayog, put on record New Delhi’s oft-repeated concerns about the rising trade imbalance because China was unable to make good use of the huge untapped potential of India’s exports.

News Reports

Energy and Environment

China environment ministry warns of ‘stalemate’ in war on smog
Today, April 19
China’s war on pollution is at risk of reaching a “stalemate”, with poor weather conditions undermining the country’s efforts to reduce smog, an environment ministry spokesman said on Thursday (April 19). Air pollution rose by more than a quarter in parts of northern China in March, and the region has been hit by another bout of smog in the second half of April, which the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) has blamed on weak air circulation.

India, China account for over half of global deaths due to air pollution 
The Economic Times, April 19
A US-study has estimated that India and China together account for more than half of global deaths due to air pollution. The US-based Health Effects Institute’s State of Global Air study, released in Boston on Tuesday, has also found that increasing exposure to air pollution combined with an ageing population has led to India rivalling China in health burden from bad air.

India to ally with China on ‘Asian premium’
The Hindu, April 15
Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan has said India would coordinate with China and other Asian countries to raise voice against the “Asian premium” being charged by the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Indian Oil Corporation chairman Sanjiv Singh would coordinate with the head of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to chalk out the strategy that would result in getting better price from OPEC countries, he said.

China interested in joining International Solar Alliance
ET Energy World, April 15
China has expressed interest in joining the International Solar Alliance (ISA). “A major take away for India was that China has expressed interest in joining the International Solar Alliance mooted by India,” NITI Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar said. He was speaking to the media as he held the fifth Strategic Economic Dialogue (SED) dialogue with his Chinese counterpart He Lifeng, the chairman of China’s top planning body the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) in Beijing.

India, China, Japan to expand cooperation in energy sector
Business Standard, April 12
India, China, Japan and Korea have agreed to boost cooperation in the energy sector in view of their consumption of hydrocarbons, primarily in business to business segment, Oil Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said today. Speaking at the concluding conference of International Energy Forum (IEF) he said, cooperation among oil-consuming nations is warranted in view of oil-producing countries charging Asian premium from India, China and others for supplying petroleum.


India and China: Over to the leaders
The Indian Express, April 24
By C. Raja Mohan – Director, Carnegie India and Contributing Editor, The Indian Express

If war has become too important to be left to the generals in the modern era, high-stakes diplomacy is too important to be left to the diplomats. In agreeing to an “informal summit” between themselves later this week in the city of Wuhan on the banks of the Yangtze, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chinese President Xi Jinping have chosen to take charge of the relationship.

When India’s Strategic Backyard Meets China’s Strategic Periphery: The View From Beijing
War on the Rocks, April 20
By Yang Xiaoping – Visiting Scholar, South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Senior Research Fellow, National Institute of International Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Despite occasional strife, India and China have operated in separate strategic theatres and avoided major conflict for more than half a century, since they fought a war over territorial disputes in 1962. But today, that may be changing as China makes economic and maritime inroads into Southern Asia.

Incremental Progress, Not Flourishes in the India China Statement
The Wire, April 15
By Manoj Joshi – Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation

There has always been a touch of rhetorical excess in delineating joint statements between India and China. In 1954 when we signed the agreement on trade and intercourse with the Tibet Region of China, it was prefaced by what came to be known as the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence. Years later in 2003, when Prime Minister Vajpayee made his visit to Beijing, it was entitled “a declaration of principles for relations and comprehensive cooperation”.

India’s adjustment of China policy a good start
The Global Times, April 12
By Wu Zhenglong – Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for International Studies

Sino-Indian relations have presented a rosy development scenario recently, with new achievements in various areas thanks to the concerted effort of both nations. It seems that a new day has dawned for the two countries which were once at odds. With regard to their ties in the past three years, many Indian media outlets and scholars believe New Delhi has gone astray with its China policy. Following a misjudgment of China’s development and the international landscape, the Indian government chose to confront China and consequently damaged India’s own development.

How government policies in India and China are widening income inequality
Quartz India, April 12
By Asit K. Biswas – Distinguished Visiting Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Kris Hartley – Lecturer in Public Policy, University of Melbourne

Wealth inequality continues to grow, according to the 2018 edition of the World Inequality Report. In the past three decades, 28% of the aggregate increase in real incomes in North America and western Europe was captured by the top 1% of earners. The bottom half saw less than 10% of this increase. Inequality has also settled at alarmingly high levels in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

With China or without?
Nikkei Asian Review, April 11
By Richard McGregor – Senior Fellow for East Asia, Lowy Institute, Sydney

What, precisely, is the meaning of the concept of the Indo-Pacific? The very fact that leading proponents of this newish term need to explain it shows that its meaning is not immediately obvious. The slight edge in the questions from the diplomats attending the first-ever meeting of Australia and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in March also signifies something else – that Southeast Asians remain deeply wary of the concept.

Books and Journals


India and Vietnam: A “Strategic Partnership” in the Making
RSIS Policy Brief, April 2018

By Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant is Professor of International Relations with the Department of Defence Studies and King’s India Institute, King’s College London, and Distinguished Fellow and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

In August 2017, Vietnam indicated it had bought BrahMos anti-ship cruise missiles, a weapon the country has long cherished, from India. Without being overly specific, the Vietnamese foreign ministry said “the procurement of defence equipment by Vietnam is consistent with the policy of peace and self-defence and is the normal practice in national defence.” India, however, claimed that the reports about the deal were “incorrect.” Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Hanoi is emerging as a pivotal state in India’s Act East policy.

This report delineates recent trends in India’s relations with Vietnam with a focus on key factors driving this bilateral engagement. It argues that, spurred by underlying structural changes and strong commitment of political leadership in the two countries, India-Vietnam ties are likely to grow stronger in the coming years.


Compiled and sent to you by Centre on Asia and Globalisation and
the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore