By Rajaram Panda
Ever since India launched its Look East policy in the 1990s, its engagement strategy has been complemented by its civilizational links with the region. The government of Narendra Modi injected a new element of dynamism by rechristening it as Act East policy. During the past three and half years that Modi has been in power, it is not difficult to see the extent of understanding India has achieved in the political, economic and security/strategic domains. The latest in this engagement strategy is India hosting all the 10 heads of states of the ASEAN member states as its special guests instead of the customary one at the 69th Republic Day celebrations.
As India is pushing its economy to integrate with the world economy vigorously by more forward-looking policies, Modi government’s engagement with the ASEAN region was further reinforced by changes in global power equations taking place dramatically, which begged readjustment of strategy by India. ASEAN is at the centre as India balances diverse alliances in strengthening its East Asia pivot.
The Manila statement of November 2017 ended on cooperation for a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region” in a direct signal to China that the initiative by the four countries will counter China’s actions in the South China Sea if necessary. Modi is seeking similar cooperation with the US separately as well, as his one-to-one talks with Trump indicated. The “Quad” is not a maritime alliance but it aims at enhancing connectivity in accordance with “the rule of law” and “prudent financing” in the Indo-Pacific together. The second part of the description pertains to the US plans to build an “alternative financing model” to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. However, despite that the Quad is called a “coalition of democracies” of the Indo-Pacific, there is no denying the fact that the initiative also closely looks at China’s growing influence in the region. As the only member of the proposed coalition that is also part of another security arrangement involving China and Russia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, India’s ability to balance its interests remains to be tested.
While India navigates on the political front by its engagement strategy, what transpired from Modi’s speech in Manila showed India’s resolve to bring its economic and business ties with the region up to the level of their “exceptionally good political and people-to-people relations”, setting the stage for closer engagement ahead of the 25th year Commemorative Summit to be held in Delhi in January 2018, with ASEAN leaders attending India’s Republic Day festivities. The 10 ASEAN countries account for about 11% of India’s global trade. India is also in talks with ASEAN “plus six”, including China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, to discuss the RCEP free trade agreement.
In his address to the 15th ASEAN-India Summit, Modi reiterated India’s ties with ASEAN as key pillar of its foreign policy and that “its centrality in the regional security architecture of the Indo-Pacific region is evident”. In a symbolic move, all 10 ASEAN heads of state have been invited to be guests of honour for the Republic Day celebration on January 26, 2018, the first time ever in India’s post-independence history. The fact that all 10 heads accepted India’s invitation demonstrates that they are keen to engage with India in all dimensions of relations. Reassuring the ASEAN member states against perceived threat from China’s domination and threat, Modi assured ASEAN of “steady support towards achieving a rules-based regional security architecture that best attests to the region’s interests and its peaceful development”.
Thus as Trump’s Asian policy shows signs of reluctance in its commitments to protect the security of the region, India gets an opportunity to engage in foreign policy activism that is in the region’s interests. Trump’s “America First” policy has sent ripples across the globe and many countries with deep economic ties with the US are worrying how to review their economic policies to cope with the new situation.
Under this new situation, it is for India to decide how to see if the glass is half-full or half-empty. In whichever way one looks at it, India finds itself in a situation where it cannot afford to shirk its responsibility to work vigorously in accordance with global norm in the interests of peace and stability in the region. For the present, Modi’s foreign policy strategy seems to be on right track. It is up to political leaders and policy makers to craft new policies as demanded by new situations as and when they unfold so that its leadership for the region’s interests proves to be meaningful.
As the parade on 26 January is expected to feature an ASEAN-Indian tableau, with artists from member countries performing the Ramayana, India gets ready to give another push to its Act East policy. The guest list includes Presidents, Prime Ministers, a King, and Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San SuuKyi. Eight of the heads of state will arrive with their partners. The occasion shall also mark the 25th anniversary of the India-ASEAN partnership, with a commemorative summit scheduled on 25 January, during which India will showcase its Act East policy, focusing on fostering trade and other relationships with ASEAN countries, besides developing India’s North East seen as a gateway to India’s engagement with the region.
While addressing the Regional Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations in Singapore on January 7, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj underlined that ASEAN region is integral to Asia’s success and to a possibility of an Asian century and therefore stressed the importance of India’s deepening ties with ASEAN. Emphasising the importance of connectivity in India’s engagement strategy, she spoke about the trilateral highway project from India to Thailand, with plan to extend further with other ASEAN countries. She highlighted the potential and promises in the defining partnership between India and Southeast Asia. India’s north-eastern region, long neglected by past governments, shall prosper when the region is better connected to Southeast Asia. The Modi government, therefore, wants to pitch India’s north-east to Southeast Asia so that the fruits of India-ASEAN ties are better realised.
Other areas in which India and the countries of Southeast Asia can partner for mutual benefits and in the interests of regional peace and stability are creating skills for the digital age, generating jobs in the age of disruption, meeting the need of rapid urbanisation, protecting the bio-diversity, making the energy sources cleaner and pulling together the knowledge for productive agriculture.
That India attached greatest importance to the economically important grouping ASEAN need not be over-stressed. The issues that are expected to come up for discussion at the upcoming Summit are terrorism, maritime security and ways to strengthen maritime architecture of the region and ensuring protection of sea lanes and facilitate freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific, besides digitisation in the financial sector and e-governance. By inviting all the 10 ASEAN heads as guests for the Republic Day celebrations, India was sending multiple messages. First, it recognised ASEAN as a single entity. Second, if India wanted to expand economically then ASEAN and West Asian countries are its future partners. Third, it was highlighting that India and ASEAN countries have civilizational links anchored in their common Hindu-Buddhist legacy.
What could be the possible outcome from the summit? One could be starting of multilateral naval exercises involving Indian and ASEAN navies to keep sea routes including the vital Malacca Straits and in and around Singapore free from attacks and piracy. India is a member of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (RECAAP). Some understanding on the issue of Cyber security could be also expected.
However, one can expect little move on the regional comprehensive economic partnership (RECP) agreement, though India-ASEAN trade is worth over $75 billion. This is because this deal between the ASEAN on one side and six other countries including India, China and Australia could significantly benefit China. India already has free trade agreements with Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia and India would not be too keen to push unless it can win some commensurate compensation for the Indian services sector. For the present, expanding regional road connectivity under the Trans-Asian Highway rubric with New Delhi keen to link its northeast region to Southeast Asian states with Myanmar more than willing to act as a strategic gateway is India’s priority in its engagement strategy and a key component in Modi government’s Act East policy.
(Dr. Rajaram Panda is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, Reitaku University, JAPAN. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect either that of the ICCR or the Government of India or of SPMRF) E-mail: [email protected])