Global gatherings are always marked with a group photo; the sort that school kids and world leaders are subjected to. As the APEC summit commenced in Beijing, 21 leaders flashed their cheesy grins at the camera. While Russian President Vladimir Putin stood next to his Chinese counterpart and host Xi Jinping, the Prime Ministers of Canada and Australia were placed prominently behind them.
American President Barack Obama was placed on the margins, between the President of South Korea and the spouse of the Indonesian President. At Comrade Xi’s party, he was like the 12th man, as a certain Doordarshan anchor might note.
It wasn’t a pleasant trip for Obama. On the Chinese version of Twitter, Weibo, there was criticism of his slacker-like gum chewing. There were awkward brushes with Putin. And the Chinese announced a proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific to counter the US-sponsored Trans Pacific Partnership.
When it comes to body language, Putin’s swagger was a contrast to Obama’s discomfort. From slapping the American President on the back, he went about draping a coat around Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan, a video that first went viral on Chinese media and then vanished as the censors snipped back.
But the chill felt by his wife was probably not shared by Xi, as he gifted a gas deal to Russia. That’ll be warmly welcomed by Putin, as a counter to the run on the ruble and Russia’s European customers pulling the plug on gas purchases as the Bear hugs Ukraine even tighter.
Nevertheless, Obama was probably glad to be breathing Beijing’s air, smog notwithstanding. Obama is apt to visit Asia after being shellacked by voters back home. After the 2010 elections, during which his party, the Democrats, lost control of the House of Representatives, Obama spent ten days in the continent, beginning with his appearance in India.
This year, after losing the Senate as well in the mid-term elections, he’s back in Asia, again for ten days. Four years earlier, though, he still had another election to win. Now, as the Chinese government mouthpiece Global Times described him, he’s a “crippled” lame duck.
Speaking of lameness, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also made an appearance at the APEC summit, as an observer, a role he’s mastered while governing his country. And for hysterical hyphenators there was the immediate chirping about India’s absence, despite a similar invite from Xi.
Even as those critiques were circulating, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was already in Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar for the ASEAN-India summit and then the G-20 in Australia. India may not have had a table at APEC, but it is supping of the soup of often-overlapping alphabet groups. In effect, bypassing Beijing never meant being a bystander.
Even if takes time for India to gain entry into these Asian groups, at least the Myanmar meet got Modi to join Instagram.
India doesn’t need to get dragged into the regional power play between the Chinese attempt to create a bloc and the American pivot to Asia. The US and China may have accomplished a climate change agreement, but such global warming is unlikely to thaw their bilateral Cold War.
Instead, India can orchestrate its theme of a Concert of Powers, which involves a watchful game with players like the US, China and Russia. Even as membership of the economic blocs isn’t imminent, there’s the concerted effort to boost ties with the Tier Two countries like Japan, Australia, Canada and Korea.
India has always wanted to stride on to the global stage. On paper. Reality hasn’t matched that script, as it has shied away from becoming a serious actor even in its own theater. As a new policy regime rolls out, it may be time to reverse that role.
At their encounter in Myanmar, Obama called Modi a “man of action”. Unlike Obama who’s broke when it comes to political capital, the PM has plenty to expend. That could be paid into turning the Act East policy into an Act Fast strategy.