After Independence, Bharat was never considered as a major player in Asia. But today there is a nice fit between a rising Asia and emergence of Bharat as a
balancer with Modi’s Act East Policy
Nalini Kant Jha
Bharat’s engagement with the Association of South Asian Nations (ASEAN) and wider Asia-Pacific region has acquired further momentum ever since the enunciation of the ‘Act East Policy’ by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 12th ASEAN-India Summit and 9th East Asia Summit in Myanmar in November 2014. He has once again confirmed this by his trips to South East Asia and China in early September for participation in a series of bilateral and multilateral meetings in Vietnam, China and Laos. Before discussing this, a brief backdrop of Bharat’s policy towards East Asia is called for.
When Nehru’s ambition of Asian unity and Bharat-China brotherhood was shattered after the Chinese aggression of 1962. New Delhi’s ties with South East Asia got stagnated due to the cold war considerations. This was allowed to happen despite their vital
significance for Bharat’s security and economic
interests. The end of the Cold War and economic reforms of the 1990s, of course, pushed Bharat back into Asia. The ASEAN leaders though accepted Bharat as a partner in the early 1990s. The pace and intensity of Delhi’s engagement with the region, however, left many ASEAN leaders disappointed.
In the meanwhile, China’s rise and assertion of its power made New Delhi one of the most important
economic partners for the region, but it also tested the internal coherence of the ASEAN, as Beijing began to assert its power in pursuit of expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea. Russia’s strategic embrace of China, Moscow’s deteriorating relations with the West and growing concerns about America’s presents added to the nervousness in the region. It was in this context that Modi’s domestic political strength, economic development, growing defence
modernisation and diplomatic activism made Bharat even more attractive partner for the Asian countries. Not surprisingly, PM Modi’s affirmation of the Act East Policy generated much enthusiasm in the region. There is no doubt that Modi’s Bharat has begun to overcome Delhi’s tentativeness on defence and security cooperation under the Look East policy.
Consolidating Ties with Vietnam
It is in this context of changing global and regional environment, Narendra Modi’s visit to Vietnam during September 2-3 for deepening ties with Vietnam in key areas of defence, security, trade and oil exploration was very timely and fruitful for strengthening links with Vietnam in particular and South East Asian countries in general through his Act East Policy.
To begin with defence cooperation, the most important pillar of cooperation between the two countries, received a fillip with Modi announcing a new $500 million line of credit for Vietnam to facilitate deeper defence
cooperation. Both the countries also agreed to tap into growing economic opportunities in the region.
Secondly, both the countries
concluded 12 MoUs covering the sectors of defence, space, IT, health, mutual recognition of standards, and cyber security. New Delhi and Hanoi also signed a MoU on cooperation between Bharat and Vietnam to set up a software park in Vietnam and New Delhi invited Vietnamese companies to take
advantage of various flagship schemes and programmes of the Government. Apart from these issues, the Prime Minister Modi also emphasised the need to further relations between the two countries on regional and international issues of common concern.
In the final leg of the tour, Modi met Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong who appreciated India’s stand on the South China Sea issue, namely, support to freedom of navigation, over flight and unimpeded commerce in the disputed region, based on the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Modi did emphasise the necessity of enhancing bilateral commercial engagement and the need of increasing mutual investments. Prime Minister has also been robustly promoting his “Make in India” campaign overseas, which makes it clear that Bharat is a destination that no willing foreign investors can
overlook. However, the percentage of trade with Vietnam is still minimal, making up only about 1.22 per cent of India’s total trade. This is expected to rise in the near future with the
realisation of an ASEAN-India Free Trade Agreement in services and investment. This can be complemented by the increased manufacturing capacities of both Bharat and Vietnam, which have been getting good amount of FDI in their manufacturing sectors. Bharat can further reap the advantages of the bilateral economic relationship if it gets integrated into the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is currently being negotiated. Bharat and Vietnam must also work for direct
bilateral connectivity and ease visa
regulations for business individuals.
14th India-ASEAN Summit and the 11th East Asia Summit
Prime Minister Modi attended the 14th ASEAN-India Summit and the 11th East Asia Summit in Vientiane, Lao PDR during September 7-8, 2016, at the invitation of Thongloun Sisoulith, Prime Minister of Lao PDR. The Summits were attended by Heads of States/Governments of the 10 ASEAN and 18 East Asia Summit Participating Countries. The PM utilised this occasion to discus with leaders of ASEAN and East Asia Summit its future direction under each of the three pillars of politico-security, economic and socio-cultural cooperation. They exchanged views on regional and international issues of mutual interest and concern.
Addressing the 14th ASEAN-Bharat summit at Vientnam on September 7, PM Modi expressed deep concern at the rising export of terror. Without naming Pakistan, he stated that one county in Bharat’s neighbourhood which
produces and exports terror is reducing space for peace and increasing space for conflict and violence and thereby putting at risk peace and prosperity for all. He, therefore, urged the leaders present there to isolate and impose sanction on instigator of violence.
Towards Balancing Asia
Today there is a nice fit between a growing Asia’s demand for economic and military balance in the region and Modi’s Act East Policy. Realising this the present Modi Government would launch the long overdue fourth phase — “balancing Asia” — in Bharat’s contemporary engagement with the East.
As connectivity is vital for this purpose, this has been a major theme of Bharat’s Look East policy; but its implementation has been somewhat disappointing in the third phase. Hence, PM Modi has promised to change this by revamping Bharat’s approach to
overland and maritime connectivity. At a time, when China is pushing ahead with its Belt and Road initiative, Modi is focussing on getting major connectivity projects off the ground to substantiate his “Act East” policy. Besides, PM Modi knows that trade and economic engagement with the East is also necessary to break from the past. He is therefore focussing on addressing issues like infrastructure, facilitation of trade, expansion of the trilateral highway (including Bharat, Myanmar, and Thailand), reduction of transaction costs, interconnectivity of goods and labour markets and improving funding etc.
New Delhi has renewed diplomatic focus on the Mekong sub-region (comprising Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) which links the Bay of Bengal with the South China Sea through land. The South China Sea is pivotal to Bharatiya interests as 50 per cent of its trade passes through its sea lanes. During the East Asia Summit, PM Modi therefore re-emphasised the imperative of maintaining freedom of navigation in sea lanes including the South China Sea.
(The writer is Professor of Politics and International Studies at Pondicherry Central University, Puducherry)