India's Absence At APEC Summit - Whose Loss?

At the recently concluded Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit meeting hosted by China, India's participation was conspicuous by its absence. But there was nothing new about this since India, whose association with the 21-member trade group is limited to that of an observer and not a full-fledged member, has never attended a summit meeting in the past.  Not attending the event by Mr.Modi was, therefore, consistant with India's stand in the matter all through.

What, however, made it a bit different this time around was that Chinese President Xi Jinping extended PM Narendra Modi an invitation to the event - the first ever received by India - when the two leaders met in Brazil to attend the BRICS summit in July this year. Nonetheless there was very little enthusiasm over the invitation on the part of India for more reasons than one.

India's valiant attempts in the past to get APEC membership ever since the forum's inception in 1989 have been stymied - initially because its economy had not been integrated into the world economy and later because of a moratorium on new memberships. Even after the moratorium was lifted in 2010, India's bid to secure membership could not fructify on account of endless and cumbersome deliberations on regional balance, with China being the principal stumbling block. The inexplicable fact that the world's third largest economy on Purchasing power parity (PPP) terms has been kept out of membership to the forum, renders the latter an imbalanced body on an uneven keel. With much smaller economies being full-fledged members, India's observer status does not bode well for the trading group's realistic appreciation of the economic aspirations of the countries of the Asia-Pacific region.

To make the question of India's participation in the Beijing Summit even more confounded, flagrant Chinese incursions into Indian territories across the border became more strident and incessant than in the past after the nationalist BJP government took over the reins power in Delhi. In fact, even as PM Modi and President Jinping were having talks on bilateral cooperation in the spheres of trade and economy during the latter's state visit to India in September this year, the Chinese troops relentlessly persisted in violating India's border areas.

Such a recalcitrant approach on the part of China was hardly conducive to Modi's visit to China albeit for attending a multilateral event although some observers saw in President Jinping's gesture of extending an invitation to Modi a softening in the Chinese stand in the matter of improving bilateral relations with India. If the invitation had been accepted by Mr.Modi, a strategic victory would have been attributed to Jinping in turning a multilateral event for a triumph on the bilateral front in a diplomatic coup. India was, however, able to see through its adversary's one step-forward-two steps-backward maneuver and cautiously proceeded in considering the invitation.

Be that as it may, let us see how Mr.Modi's participation in the summit, if it had come through, would have helped India. Those who gripe that the summit represented for India a missed opportunity point out to reports that Prime Minister Nawaz Sheriff of Pakistan, another observer country which President Xi Jinping had invited to the summit, returned home with a handful of goodies in the form of contracts and investment opportunities, alluding to a diplomatic goof up on the part of Mr.Modi.

In our keenness to lay blame at Mr.Modi, let us not lose sight of the fact that unlike India, Pakistan is a strategic ally of China and, as such, the prospects of its scoring Chinese largesse during the summit were quite bright. Besides, hasn't India already wangled off a pledge of $20 billion from China to be invested over a period of five years in infrastructure projects in India, as recently as September this year during Xi Jinping's visit? To expect an uninterrupted run of economic outflow from China to India at the cost of the former's strategic allies would be tantamount to being a bit too unrealistic and unappreciative of the realities of geopolitics. Losing an odd battle or two in a tactical retreat to win the war for economic supremacy would be the ultimate pragmatic approach of the master strategist.

It would make a lot more sense to address the question as to what APEC has gained by keeping the Indian economic powerhouse out rather than what India has lost by choosing to stay out as an observer state. As regards Mr.Modi, he had already moved on to Myanmar to score laurels at the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit and the East Asia Nations (EAS) Summit on 11-12 November.