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Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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India Hones ‘Act-East’ Policy

Modi has also sent a powerful message to China which has disputes with several asean member-nations

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it a point to use the Republic Day to underpin a specific foreign policy initiative. In January 2015, Barack Obama became the first United States president to be chief guest at India’s Republic Day. The move signalled Modi’s desire to forge a closer strategic partnership with the US. In 2016, French President François Hollande was chief guest as India focused on building deeper economic ties with the European Union (EU).

The chief guest at the Republic Day parade in 2017 was Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Modi had made the Middle East a focal point for his foreign policy by nuancing the outreach to Israel (a significant defence partner) as well as to the Gulf kingdoms (where several million Indians, including minorities, work).

All three past Republic Day chief guests have therefore served a particular geopolitical objective. So what should we read into the decision to invite all ten leaders of ASEAN as joint chief guests on January 26, 2018, India’s 69th Republic Day?

There are in fact several messages with nuanced subtexts. First, it is an extension of  India’s Act-East policy. For decades India has followed a Look-East policy. ASEAN, the world’s second most powerful trading bloc after the EU, had showed scant interest in India’s paternalistic vision which emphasised geopolitical priorities to its west rather than to its east.

Modi has changed that perception. He has spent considerable political capital on boosting ties with East Asian countries. By inviting ASEAN’s ten leaders Modi has also sent a powerful message to China which has disputes with several ASEAN member-nations, including the Philippines, Thailand, Brunei and Vietnam. ASEAN countries like Singapore and Malaysia have large ethnic Indian populations, especially from Tamil Nadu. Many have strong cultural links with Indian Buddhism. All this gives Indian soft power an edge in an Asia increasingly dominated by China’s hegemonic ambitions.

Beijing has been deeply upset by India’s refusal to be a part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China knows that possessing the world’s largest economy in the future will not be enough to replace the United States as the world’s pre-eminent superpower. It has few friends in Asia, bar Pakistan and North Korea. Smaller littoral countries pay lip service to Chinese global leadership but few regard it as a model of good public governance.

India needs to play its geopolitical cards astutely in South Asia as well. China has already replaced India as Nepal’s largest investor. And yet the Chinese haven’t won hearts and minds in Kathmandu. Nepalese shopkeepers complain about wealthy Chinese tourists driving up real estate prices, edging locals out of the market.

Meanwhile, India has begun countering China’s economic thrust into Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government proposes to hand over to India the management of Hambantota airport, ironically near a deep-sea port to be run by China. The Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) in Hambantota was built by China. It is a loss-making white elephant like many of China’s infrastructure projects in Asia and Africa built with high interest-bearing loans from Beijing. India’s takeover of the airport will help Sri Lanka pay back part of the loan, though resentment in Colombo with China will hardly abate.

India needs to react to China’s growing influence in India’s backyard (from Bangladesh to Sri Lanka) with its own alliances among the littoral states of the South China Sea. The need to combat terrorism and safeguard regional security resonates well with the mercantile, pragmatic members of ASEAN. The ASEAN leaders’ presence at Republic Day will also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of ASEAN and the 25th anniversary of India’s partnership with ASEAN launched in 1992 by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s new ‘Look-East’ policy. It has taken 25 years to transform Look-East to Act-East. Meanwhile, ASEAN’s ten member-nations (Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines) have become influential in world trade.

Modi is likely to take part in the India-ASEAN summit in November 2017 in Manila. The combined GDPs of the ten ASEAN nations are now roughly equal to India’s nominal (non-PPP) GDP of $2.50 trillion. India and ASEAN upgraded their relationship to a strategic partnership in 2012. Defence ties are set to take precedence along with trade. India has already firmed up deals to sell fast interceptor boats and BrahMos missiles to Vietnam in a direct snub to China.

As General D.S. Hooda, who retired as general officer commanding-in-chief of the Indian Army’s northern command wrote in The Indian Express: “The Chinese influence in Southeast Asia looks extremely strong but there are signs of cracks due to a rising anti-China sentiment. Ethnic tensions have led to the Chinese leaving Malaysia. According to the home minister of Malaysia, of the 56,576 Malaysians who renounced their citizenship between 2006 and 2016, 49,864 were Chinese. Tiny Singapore, fearful of Chinese domination, has the highest military expenditure in ASEAN. Infrastructure projects in Myanmar and Thailand have been stalled or delayed on environment concerns.

“There are maritime disputes in the South China Sea with the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. The ASEAN countries are going to look towards India and Japan to provide a counter-weight to China. However, to be considered a serious player in this region, India must enhance its credibility. The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, conceived in 2002, has already missed its scheduled date and is now expected to be completed by 2020.”

The sharp contours of India’s foreign policy though are now visible. In South Asia, Pakistan has been ostracised by SAARC, a forum India will increasingly use for trade and regional security. The BIMSTEC forum will strengthen India’s relationship with the nations in the Bay of Bengal region. India’s strategic partnership with the US will form a key trilateral axis with Japan.

In the Middle East, India has built strategic partnerships with the Sunni (Saudi) and Shia (Iran) Muslim worlds as well as with Israel. Russia remains an ally though not as reliable as it once was. By engaging more deeply with ASEAN, Modi’s Act-East policy will serve as the final piece in completing India’s complex geopolitical jigsaw.

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