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Handshake season in China-wary region

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New Delhi, Nov. 21: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has this week begun a winter of diplomatic handshakes aimed at using unprecedented warmth in India’s strategic ties with Indo-Pacific nations to expand New Delhi’s influence in a region where many are wary of China.

In front of his A-list ministers, Singh yesterday greeted Vietnam’s top leader — communist party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong — at the regal Hyderabad House with a firm promise to help Hanoi strengthen its defences, under threat from an increasingly assertive Beijing.

“Both India and Vietnam belong to a region that holds enormous potential but also many challenges,” Singh said. “We have strong convergence of interests in working together and with others in the region for a stable, peaceful and prosperous Asia.”

The statement offers a template that India can use repeatedly over the next four months when Singh hosts a series of guests seeking strengthened strategic ties with New Delhi to build on opportunities and ease worries they share as much as their geography.

On November 30, Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko will begin a deeply symbolic eight-day trip to India, the first ever by that nation’s royal couple. The two had come to India for their honeymoon trip in 1960 when Akihito was the crown prince.

Then, early in 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is expected to visit India, followed by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and South Korean President Park Gyun-hye.

The leaders will come with their individual list of wishes, suggestions and nudges for Singh.

But common to all of them will be a search for deeper defence and security partnerships in a region that is emerging as the centre of strategic focus after Washington’s Asia-Pacific pivot.

“You’ve got to join the dots, look at all these coming visits together, to understand the true strategic implications of what’s going on,” a senior official said.

India, officials maintain, does not seek to participate in any ploy to contain China — a concern frequently expressed by experts and officials in Beijing against the backdrop of New Delhi’s burgeoning relationship with Washington and Tokyo.

On his visit to Beijing last month, Singh tried to assuage China’s concerns as directly as diplomacy allows.

“We agreed that, as large neighbours following independent foreign policies, the relationship pursued by India and China with other countries must not become a source of concern for each other,” Singh said after meeting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. “This will be our strategic reassurance.”

But China’s tensions with its neighbours automatically push these nations closer to India, opening up economic and strategic opportunities that New Delhi is happy to accept. These are opportunities that China itself has grabbed in India’s neighbourhood when New Delhi’s diplomacy with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives or Bhutan has faltered.

Petro Vietnam, the communist nation’s public sector oil behemoth, inked a pact with India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation to explore new sites for potential fuel in the South China Sea where Hanoi and Beijing are locked in a tense territorial dispute.

Vietnam is convinced the presence of key nations like India in the South China Sea will deter China from any aggressive action against it. As with Vietnam, China is also engaged in an increasingly vocal and heated diplomatic spat with Japan over islands they both claim.

In May this year, Japan broke with its traditional reluctance to sell armaments — a policy that is an outcome of World War II — and offered to sell India US-2 amphibious aircraft that add an edge to the Indian Navy.

The visible warmth between Abe and Singh during the Indian leader’s visit to Tokyo that month triggered a series of articles in Chinese state media articulating concerns that the Japanese leader was trying to rope New Delhi into an anti-Beijing alliance.

South Korea and China reduced tensions over the past two years, but simmering maritime disputes and an edgy Cold War history remain challenges to their partnership.

Australia has traditionally been closer to Japan and the US than to China, and while Abbott is keen to tap China’s economic might, strategically he has indicated greater proximity to Indonesia and India.