Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj on Monday concludes a five-day visit to Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore. It’s a precursor to New Delhi hosting leaders of the 10-member Asean as chief guests at the Republic Day Parade.
In 2014, within months of being elected, the Narendra Modi government had renamed the ‘Look East Policy’, formulated in 1991 during the PV Narasimha Rao regime, to ‘Act East Policy’, to deepen and strengthen New Delhi’s ties with Asean member countries.
India and the 10-member Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations), as also countries like Japan and Australia in the region described as Indo-Pacific, have shared concerns over the increasing Chinese assertiveness in the region. There is the question of freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly the Straits of Malacca, the busiest sea route in the world. These countries, including the US, have a common interest in shaping the security architecture in the region.
If the India-China 73-day military standoff at Doklam in mid-2017 was an example of India’s nervousness at the growing Chinese assertiveness, some of the Asean member countries, and China’s neighbours like Japan, which is a close ally of India’s, are also victims of Chinese territorial aggression in the region.
However, diplomats from Asean countries have been complaining that the Modi government’s ‘Act East Policy’ hasn’t been proactive enough, with India ‘looking east’ but not acting suitably on its plans. This is where Swaraj’s recent visit to Asean countries, and New Delhi hosting Asean leaders for the Republic Day parade, is significant. Subsequent to the Republic Day parade, New Delhi would also be hosting Vietnam President Tran Dai Quang. The Vietnam prime minister is scheduled to attend the Republic Day Parade.
Meanwhile, Beijing continues to strengthen its footprint in India’s immediate neighbourhood. Nepal now has a Communist-led government, which is expected to lean towards China. There are under construction infrastructure projects that China is building in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Myanmar – knitting a ‘string of pearls’, as it is called, encircling India. It comprises the Gwadar port, projects in the Maldives, Hambantota port in Sri Lanka, Chittagong port in Bangladesh and Chinese projects in Myanmar. Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayaoom was in China in December. On December 9, Sri Lanka gave China the lease of Hambantota port for 99 years.
However, the Chinese have flagged how India’s military exercises near the Malacca Straits, a lifeline to China's energy security, is influencing Beijing’s strategic decisions. Recently, New Delhi also agreed to be part of the US-Japan-Australia-India quadrilateral grouping.
Earlier this month, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono visited Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. He offered these three countries Japanese help in infrastructure development and stressed the importance of the Japanese government’s “free and open Indo-Pacific strategy”, and sought their support. All three countries currently receive substantial Chinese loans and investments.
If China has launched its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), India is also pushing for an early completion of the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway by 2020. The highway is likely to be extended later to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Other infrastructure and connectivity projects nearing completion are the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Corridor, which will connect Myanmar's Sittwe Port with Kolkata port.
In the months to come, South Asia and Indo-Pacific will continue to witness an engrossing chess game involving some of the biggest economic powers in the world.