In Modi’s Targeting of China at the UN, a New Willingness to Signal Stridency

Says global institutions’ reputation soiled by China-related controversies over Covid-19 origins and ease of doing business index, pitches ‘democratic India’ as ‘trusted partner’ for supply chains.

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New Delhi: Global institutions have “damaged their credibility” thanks to controversies over the ‘ease of doing business index’ and the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday, making a thinly veiled reference to China that would not have been lost on his international audience.

Modi also praised Indian democracy and diversity – a theme which has acquired much salience against the backdrop of growing domestic and global criticism of his government’s policies – to drive home the same geopolitical message. Both US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris obliquely referred to the need for tolerance and democracy in their public remarks to Modi this week.

Though he avoided making any direct reference to Pakistan or Kashmir – a topic Prime Minister Imran Khan dwelt on at the UN on Friday – the Indian leader did say that the international community should ensure that no country tries to take advantage of the situation in Afghanistan to promote “its own selfish interests.”

After stating that many questions were being raised about the UN’s handling of crises, Modi said that this malaise had affected other multilateral organisations too. “In the context of the origin of Covid and the Ease of Doing Business rankings, global governance institutions have damaged their credibility built up by decades of hard work,” Modi said.

The World Bank recently scrapped its much-quoted annual Ease of Doing Business survey that assessed and ranked the business environment in countries. The survey was stopped after an independent auditor found, among other conclusions, that China had managed to successful inflate its ranking in the 2018 report by putting pressure on top bank officials.

For the Indian government, the World Bank index had been key to its claim that the business climate had improved after Modi came to power in 2014. Before then, India had been at 142 and reached the 63rd rank in 2019.

China was also at the core of the ongoing controversy over further investigations into origin of Covid-19 by the World Health Organisation (WHO). While India has refrained from openly criticising China, it has also said that WHO’s advanced probe into origin requires cooperation “from all”.

The WHO’s joint investigation report with Chinese scientists in March this year had found that it was “extremely unlikely” that the SARS-CoV-2 virus might have emerged due to a laboratory incident in Wuhan.

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had stated that laboratory leak hypothesis “required further investigation” and called for more joint investigation in China. Beijing batted it away, but India squarely backed the WHO chief on the need for additional missions.

With China the antagonist in both these cases, Modi’s message at the UNGA was clearly intended as a signal to Western capitals that India is willing to take a more strident approach towards Beijing.

With the Indo-Pacific emerging as a key area of contention, the revival of the ‘Quad’ has been projected by the US, India, Japan and Australia as democracies working together in the region where Beijing has strategic ambitions.

A day earlier, Modi took part in the first in-person summit of the Quad hosted by the US President in the White House.

Emphasising India’s democratic credentials, Modi said this would be a factor in the diversification of supply chains in the post-Covid global economy – another swipe at China. “India is becoming a democratic and trusted partner in the world for global industrial diversification,” he said.

While noting that his government had decided to restart vaccine exports, he invited foreign vaccine manufacturers to set up shop in India.

In his UN speech, Modi also called for keeping sea lanes open and free from expansionism, which are familiar allegations made about China’s policy in the South China Sea. Earlier this month, China said it was operationalising a new policy requiring certain kinds of ships passing through the South China Sea to notify the Chinese maritime authorities – a demand that is not in consonance with the international maritime law.

“So, we have to keep in mind that we use – not abuse – ocean resources. Our seas are also the lifeline of international trade. We have to protect them from the race for expansion and exclusion. In a rule-based world order, the international community has to speak in unison,” Modi said.

Modi also cited the UN Security Council’s  presidential statement on maritime security adopted during India’s presidency of the UNSC in August.

Incidentally, a fellow Quad leader –  Australian prime minister Scott Morrison –called for an independent investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic in his address to the UN General Assembly.

Message to Pakistan

Along with China, Modi also took aim at Pakistan, without taking any names.

“Today, the world is facing an increased threat of regressive thinking and extremism. In such a situation, the entire world must make science-based, rational and progressive thinking the basis for development. In order to strengthen a science-based approach, India is promoting experience-based learning. On the other hand, countries with regressive thinking that are using terrorism as a political tool must understand that terrorism is an equally big threat for them”.

He also stated that Afghanistan’s territory should not turn into a fertile ground to launch terror attacks at other countries.

“We also need to ensure that no country tries to take advantage of the delicate situation in Afghanistan and use it for its own selfish interests,” he said.

Pakistan, along with China and Russia, have been advocating that the international community engage with the Taliban, many of whose leaders had found shelter in Pakistani territory in the last two decades.

Praising diversity, even as it is undermined at home

Modi also described India as the “mother of democracy” and praised the country’s diversity. “Our diversity is the identity of our strong democracy,” he said. “It is a country that has dozens of languages, hundreds of dialects, different lifestyles and cuisines. This is the best example of a vibrant democracy,” he added.

He did not say anything about how the stringent bans imposed by several state governments run by the BJP on the consumption of beef could be reconciled with his praise for “different lifestyles and cuisines”.

Earlier this month, the BJP’s chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, accused those who use the term “abba jaan” – an obvious reference to Muslims – of cornering all the subsidised food in the state for themselves before he came to power.

Despite the chief minister’s communal – and demonstrably false – rhetoric, Modi publicly praised Adityanath for his leadership a few days later.