For Greater Indo-Pacific Role, India should Strengthen Strategic Ties with ASEAN
India has made significant efforts to bolster its economic and strategic ties with South East Asia, Japan and South Korea over the past decade. The current Indian government under Narendra Modi has sought to further strengthen relations with South East Asia, Japan and stressed on the need for ‘Acting East’ and not just ‘Looking East’.
Washington has supported a greater role in the Indo-Pacific. Before commencing his India visit in April 2016, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter categorically stated, “India is already a very influential and powerful force in the whole Indo Asia Pacific region, starting with the Indian Ocean”. In meetings between the US President and Indian PM Modi, cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region has been accorded high priority. In fact, President Obama who was accused of neglecting India in his first term has invested significant capital in strengthening the strategic partnership with India and been successful in finding common ground with India’s Act East policy.
India has responded by joining the Malabar Exercises with Japan and the US. India’s maritime diplomacy has been quite pro-active tremendously, with almost 50 visits and bilateral exercises conducted in the past one year. New Delhi did not shy away from signing the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of agreement (LEMOA), which has been criticized by some strategic analysts for favoring the US. The agreement was first proposed by the previous Manmohan Singh government, but due to opposition from within the Congress party was scuttled.
It would be important to point out that Washington has supported a greater role for India in the India-Pacific region, not only in the strategic sphere, but also in terms of enhancing connectivity between India and South East Asia through the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor which will connect India with South East Asia through Myanmar and Bangladesh. India too has been realizing the relevance of stronger connectivity with ASEAN countries beginning with Myanmar. During Myanmar President Htin Kyaw visit to New Delhi in August 2016, expediting the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway ( upgradation of 69 bridges on this route and the Kalewa-Yargi road section) was amongst the important issues. Indian PM, Narendra Modi during the India-ASEAN dialogue also spoke for the need of setting up of a joint task force to extend this corridor to Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.
New Delhi while strengthening its strategic ties with the US, should watch closely recent events in ASEAN which may have reduced Washington’s leverage and strengthened China’s position in ASEAN. While economically, Beijing is heavily invested in the region, certain recent developments have given it leeway in the strategic sphere. They include:
Firstly, the anti-US posturing Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte. The President recently stated that military exercises to be conducted on October 4 will be the last. “You [the United States] are scheduled to hold war games again which China does not want. I will serve notice to you now; this will be the last military exercise”.
Perfecto Yasay, Duterte’s Foreign Secretary, has however, denied this. While time will tell whether the military exercises are cancelled on or not there is a significant shift. Many believe that he is just playing the US against China and is using this as a means to encourage greater Chinese investment in Phillipines.
While Vietnam and China have had recent tensions and India has sought to strengthen strategic ties with the latest reiteration being the 500 Million USD defence credit offered during the Indian PM’s visit to Vietnam in the first week of September 2016, out of this amount 100 Million would be used for building patrol boats. It was also decided, that India would further increase assistance in the sphere of military training. Less than 2 weeks after a successful visit by Modi, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Vietnam in the middle of September, and spoke about the importance of the bilateral relationship. Interestingly, in spite of the tensions between both countries bilateral trade is estimated at over USD 65 Billion.
It is not just the above developments, but US has not been able to push through the Trans-Pacific Partnership a brain child of President Obama. President Obama acknowledged the opposition to TPP during a joint press conference on August 2, 2016 conducted during Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong’s state visit. Obama: said, “there’s a real problem but the answer is not cutting off globalization. The answer is how do we make sure that globalization, technology, automation—those things work for us, not against us. TPP is designed to do precisely that,” said Mr. Obama.
The Singaporean PM in an interview to the Wall Street Journal in March 2016 had alluded to the possible lowering of US influence in ASEAN, if the agreement does not go through. The Singaporean PM said, ‘think it is important you do ratify this and not either let it stand for years unsettled or, worse, at some point, say ‘We are not satisfied, let us come back. I am asking for an even better deal’ because that would considerably undermine American credibility and seriousness of purpose, and confidence in America all over the region’.
First, India should continue to woo Cambodia-Myanmar-Laos-Vietnam (CMLV) countries in ASEAN which for long were on the margins, but today are drivers of growth and economic players. India is strengthening economic and strategic ties with Vietnam and Myanmar.
Apart from India’s pro-active outreach to these countries both in the economic and strategic sphere, it is important that India focuses on strengthening connectivity and trade ties. Projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway need to expedited and extending it till Cambodia and Vietnam will help in strengthening India’s Act East Policy, and also bolstering projects like the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor.
Second, while India may be no match for China in terms of investment and bilateral trade, India should build on its own strengths in areas like capacity building and also an efficient private sector. While India has been assisting CMLV countries in IT, English language training and agriculture it should increase the number of scholarships for students from these countries. There is also a need to enhance people to people contact and utilize historical links with these countries.
India has its own strengths in ASEAN, and while finding common ground with the US in the Indo-Pacific is one aspect of India’s Act East Policy of the current government, it needs to create its own niche, and play to its own strengths without being unduly obsessed by the China factor.