Ever since India launched its Look East policy in the 1990s following liberalisation of economic policies, its engagement strategy has been complemented by its civilisational 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 vis-à-vis the region. The latest in this engagement strategy is India hosting all 10 heads of states of the ASEAN as its special guests instead of the customary one at the 69th Republic Day celebrations on January 26.
As India is pushing its economy to integrate with the economies of the world vigorously by more forward-looking policies, the Modi Government’s engagement with the ASEAN region is further reinforced by changes in global power equations, which beg readjustment of strategy by India. The ASEAN is at the centre as India balances diverse alliances in strengthening its East Asia pivot.
Modi represented India at the ASEAN-India Summit, the East Asia Summit and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Summit in November 2017 in Manila, and this put India at the centrestage of the Asian region, called the Indo-Pacific. India-ASEAN bonhomie nurtured over the years also needs to be seen against the background of China’s increasing presence and muscle-flexing on certain regional issues, which violates international norms and goes against established order. India, Japan, Australia, and the US are working together to cope with this new situation. This development is not sudden; it dates back to 2006 when Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first proposed the India-US-Japan-Australia quadrilateral in order to work for peace and order in the Indo-Pacific region. It abruptly ended after Abe resigned. After 10 years in wilderness, the same idea is now being revived.
The Manila statement 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 its 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 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 is aimed at countering 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 per cent 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.
The ASEAN and other Asian countries ought to take notice that during the recent Communist Party Congress, President Xi Jinping showed exuberance to project China’s regional and global power. China feels encouraged that Trump has become inward-looking with an isolationistic foreign policy agenda, leaving the Asian allies and other smaller nations in utter confusion about the US’ commitment for the region.
In his address to the 15th ASEAN-India Summit, Modi reiterated India’s ties with the ASEAN as a 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, 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 us in all dimensions of relations. Reassuring the ASEAN member states against the perceived threat from China’s domination, Modi promised a “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 scenario, 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 now, Modi’s foreign policy strategy seems to be on the 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 January 26 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 Suu Kyi. 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 January 25, 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 its engagement with the region.
As per protocol, Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, who took over the chair for 2018 from Manila, is expected to sit between Modi and President Ram Nath Kovind during the parade. The Rashtrapati Bhavan is busy preparing an elaborate list of South Asian cuisines so that the leaders get a taste of local flavours.
With so many heads of states in the Capital at one time, and two key events — an Asean-India Commemorative Summit and the Republic Day celebrations — scheduled, the traffic police shall have a tough time in managing movement of vehicles. As key routes are expected to come under blockade for VIP movements, one can expect heavy traffic jams. The traffic police might have learnt some lessons from the India-Africa Summit in October 2015 when India hosted 42 heads of states bringing central Delhi to a standstill, and take corrective measures this time.
While addressing the Regional Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations in Singapore on January 7, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj underlined that the 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 the Asean. Emphasising the importance of connectivity in India’s engagement strategy, she spoke about the trilateral highway project from India to Thailand, with a 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 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 overstressed. 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 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 civilisational links anchored in their common Hindu-Buddhist legacy.
What could be the possible outcome of 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 also be 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 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 North-east 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 the Modi Government’s Act East policy.
* The writer 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.