India in the Sino Backyard

President Pratibha Patil’s visit to northeast Asia last month was aimed at solidifying India’s relations with Mongolia and South Korea. In South Korea, Patil agreed to strengthen the New Delhi-Seoul relations, especially as regards people-to-people contact, defence and most importantly, civil nuclear trade. The second part of her trip centred on developing India’s growing partnership with Mongolia.

Over the past many decades, Indo-Mongol relations have had been consistent, to say the least, if not robust. A high point in the relations was attained in 2005, when Ulan Bator formally extended its support to New Delhi in its bid for inclusion as a permanent member to the UNSC. The latter reciprocated with promise of a substantial volume of foreign development assistance, besides a string of diplomatic visits.  

Though the most recent approach from the South Block was dotted with a soft undertone, it was nevertheless firmly grounded around the real objective as regards cooperation on defence, energy security and trade. New Delhi, typically, is hungry for new sources of energy and this was a major point of discussion between Pratibha Patil and her Mongolian counterpart Tsakhia Elbegdorj. The two heads of states agreed to bolster relations in mining and nuclear energy by scouring new opportunities for joint cooperation.

This is built on a joint statement issued in 2010 where both sides had agreed to “operationalise” civil nuclear cooperation, besides looking for potential joint ventures pertaining to uranium mining. Despite the Indo-Mongol pact lacking the commitment and scope as compared to the New Delhi-Seoul agreement, it nevertheless demonstrates New Delhi’s determination of not being left behind in competition as regards the nascent uranium market in Mongolia.

Patil and Elbegdorj agreed on strengthening defence relations via signing of a crucial agreement on bilateral defence cooperation. The agreement, however, is not overly comprehensive as Ulan Bator still prefers to adopt a cautious approach about getting too proximal to New Delhi on defence issues. India, on the other hand, is keener on enhancing defence ties even further and Pratibha Patil made this clear to the Mongolian media. The underlying rationale is simple. New Delhi believes that it would have a competitive edge in the trade and mining sectors if can diversify its engagement with Ulan Bator so as to morph into a strategic partner than investor.    

The South Block has done its research well and recognises the inherent advantages of investing in the central Asian economy. World Bank figures reveal that Mongolia is slated to grow by nearly 30 per cent in 2013, making it the fastest growing economy not only in Asia but the world. Pratibha Patil remarked the figures as “staggering”. Of primary interest to India would be the Mongolian mining sector that includes substantial reserves of uranium, gold, coal and copper. Patil further sweetened the package by committing an investment of about $20 million for setting up the India-Mongolia Joint Information Technology, Education and Outsourcing Centre at Ulan Bator.

Such soft power overtures are likely to further India develop its association with a rising central Asian power and accord influence to a region dominated by Chinese influence and investment. While the Beijing is looking west, New Delhi has its eyes trained on the east.

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