Prime Minister Narendra Modi's tour last week of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, all important south-eastern countries and Asean members, once again, indicated the energetic pursuit of his government's Act East policy. This tour including the invitation to deliver the keynote speech at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore shows how far India and Asean have travelled over the past twenty-five years to take ties on an upward trajectory. In evaluating this regional visit, a brief look at the past would provide a useful context.
India began seriously engaging the Asean in the early 1990s after the end of the cold war. To demonstrate its intent the Narasimha Rao government called the new approach Look East. Earlier, India had looked at this important region through the prism of the cold war; hence, the focus was largely on developing close ties with countries such as Vietnam. Besides India's socialistic economy did not provide real opportunities for economic and commercial interaction with the market economy countries of the region such as Singapore and Thailand which were in the western camp.
India and ASEAN established a Sectoral Dialogue partnership in 1992. The engagement was limited to a few commercial sectors and coincided with the opening up of the Indian economy the previous year. Over the next twenty-five years the relationship moved in stages to a Strategic Partnership with annual leadership summits. India also got involved in Asean's security related mechanisms. With the aggressive rise of China, Asean quietly wanted India to partially balance the emerging power. Bilaterally India's relationships with individual Asean countries progressed but more with some than others. It is here that Modi's present tour becomes significant.
It was good that Modi decided to add a drop-by visit to Malaysia to the tour. It was an opportunity to establish contact with the new Mahathir led government. Over the years bilateral commercial and economic as well as security sector relations have moved ahead. That momentum needs to be maintained and Modi's trip will help in maintaining continuity. India's major focus though should now be on Indonesia.
Indonesia is by far the largest Asean country. It is also the world's most populous Muslim country. It is also India's maritime neighbour. There is a history of cultural contact. Even today Indonesia is comfortable, in the cultural context, with its Ramayana and Mahabharata heritage. It should have been natural for both countries to develop a thriving partnership but that was not to be. After the nineteen fifties, when Nehru and the Indonesian leader Sukarno enjoyed a personal rapport, the two countries drifted away.
Over the last two decades both countries have sought to give greater all-round content to their ties. Consequently, Indonesia is now India's largest trading partner in Asean with bilateral trade at US $ 16 billion. A defence and security co-operation structure is being put in place. But relations are far from achieving their full potential. Indonesian President Joko Widodo's (popularly called Jokowi) India trip in 2016 and Modi's visit are steps in the right direction.
The two countries have decided to move to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. This shows intent but its translation into reality will require enormous work on both sides. The decision for India to consider developing infrastructure in the Sabang port, not of any great strategic significance, which is only ninety nautical miles from the Nicobar Islands will be a test of its ability to deliver if commitments are made. India's record of project delivery all over the world has been bad till now. The decision to participate in an interfaith dialogue in Indonesia and later organise one in India is timely.
The decision to upgrade maritime cooperation needs to approached realistically by India. The Joint Vision statement appropriately focussed on areas where the seas play a role –trade, investments, technology, disaster risk management, marine resources and culture. However, when moving ahead on naval cooperation especially regarding the security of the Malacca Straits that India will have to take the sensitivities of the littoral states into account.
In Singapore, which has become a core country for India's Asean policy, Modi spelt out his world view. He dwelt on the importance of an inclusive, multipolar world order where diversity is embraced (that should also be his government's constant message on the Indian social order to those who think and act, sometimes violently, in narrow exclusive terms) and protectionist walls do not obstruct the processes of globalisation. Modi emphasised India's desire to foster ties with all major powers. On China he said, "I firmly believe that, Asia and the world will have a better future when India and China work together in trust and confidence, sensitive to each other's interests". At the same time, he indirectly referred to China while calling for respect for sovereignty while pursuing connectivity and respect for the laws of the seas.
Modi assuaged Asean concerns when he underscored that the organisation will be central to the future of the Indo-Pacific region. The gradual shift from the use of the term Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific is more than mere semantics. It denotes the acceptance of India in the Pacific Ocean. Although the change by the US in using the term may be directed towards China, its acceptance by countries in Asean shows their acknowledgement of India's rise. Significantly, none of these countries either in this region or others feel threatened by India. This a measure of successful diplomacy of this and previous governments.