Article by Thomas Daniel which appeared in New Straits Times, 20 June 2018

IT has been four years since India adopted its “Act East” policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Act East aims to accelerate the previous “Look East” policy that had been in place since the 1990s to better connect India with the Asia Pacific through common strategic understanding, physical infrastructure projects, trade and investment agreements, and regional institutions.

While being a work-in-progress, Act East has generated some positive results for India, especially in expanding and deepening its ties and influence in the Asia Pacific. Security and strategic issues are now a key narrative of its engagement with East Asia and the wider Asia Pacific.

This was reemphasised by Modi’s keynote address during the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. He firmly outlined India’s commitment to the emerging regional order where a coalition of powers, rather than a single power or two major powers worked to shape the various regional architectures based on “free and open” principles.

From the very beginning, the Modi government made it clear that Asean or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would be a major focus area for India under this policy and it has been quite proactive in terms of relations and engagement.

Modi himself has visited nearly all Asean member states since he became PM, including multiple visits to key countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore and even Myanmar and Malaysia. These have been supplemented by visits by India’s president, vice-president and the ministers of external affairs and defence respectively. India also hosted all 10 Asean heads of governments during its Republic Day in January this year.

However, has India’s relations with Asean improved as much as it could have? Some observers have argued that the Act East strategy has yielded more for Indian engagement with Japan, Australia and the United States, rather than with Asean. When it comes to Asean, most of the progress has been with countries that India has traditionally worked closely with — namely Vietnam and Singapore.

In order to increase the scope, depth, quality and durability of India-Asean cooperation, the following three issues should merit some consideration by policy planners.

First, India needs to ensure sustained engagement with Asean and its member states across multiple fronts — strategic, security, economic and socio-cultural. Unfortunately, when compared to some of Asean’s other partners, the depth and sustainability of India’s relationship with Asean has been rather dismal. There has always been a gap between India’s strategic promise and its performance. As is often the case with grand initiatives from New Delhi, the problem is not the lack of ideas but the inability to follow through on them.

Of course, it takes two to tango and Asean is not entirely blameless in this scenario as well. Asean in turn should be a more proactive partner in this relationship and not just depend on India to get things moving. On the bright side, however, the indications by all parties — India, Asean and its member states – are encouraging and there seems a real desire to boost engagement and achieve substantial results. One would hope that stakeholders, whether from the government, political, private and civil sectors, will continue to keep their eye on the ball and push for tangible progress.

Second, trade and connectivity are key sectors where India-Asean relations need a major push. Though the India-Asean relationship has never been short on the rhetoric of greater engagement in trade and connectivity, there has been comparatively little progress on this front. While India has worked to improve relations with all Asean member states, stronger trade ties with Asean and better integration into common trade mechanisms ought to be a top priority — taking into consideration both its strategic and developmental aims.

Trade, development and infrastructure have long been a major common anchor for Asean and its member states — both in improving cooperation with each other and external partners. Understanding and leveraging on its significance has seen countries like China, Japan and even South Korea make tremendous gains in their relationship and influence with Asean. Some examples of what India could do in this sector include moving forward with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations and examining long-delayed joint infrastructure projects. There should also be fewer hurdles placed on private sector initiatives, which have often moved faster than their respective bureaucracies.

Third, it is imperative that major power competition should not be a driving force behind India-Asean engagement. India-Asean engagement must not be framed, or seen to be framed, as a relationship brought about in response to the growing clout of China, not just in the Asia Pacific but also in the Indian Ocean region. Instead, it should be primarily driven by the desire to improve and deepen relations with the regional organisation — building on the long history between India, Asean and its member states.

Ultimately, India needs to demonstrate this not just to the wider region but to Asean itself. Asean has always been forthright about its apprehension towards great power competition and the regional organisation being used either as a tool or a chess piece in the greater schemes of major powers. A united, neutral Asean is more beneficial to the wider region than an Asean that is split or forced to choose sides. Efforts to cultivate improved and closer relations with Asean by all external partners and powers will be better served in the long term if the fundamental basis of that relationship is based on genuine trust, friendship and respect.

The writer is an analyst, foreign policy and security studies, Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia

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