The extraordinary sight of all the ten heads of state or government of ASEAN attending the grand Republic Day Parade in Delhi as chief guests this year was a significant geo-political event for India, but the fact that this coincided with the commemorative summit marking the silver jubilee of the India-ASEAN Dialogue Partnership, gave added strength to our friendship with this powerful forum of ten Asian countries. This will boost the rise of India under the Narendra Modi regime, as an acknowledged leader in the region. Prime Minister Modi’s perceptive idea of elevating the “Look East” policy to “Act East” call has taken India to a new level of understanding with our East Asian neighbours. A new found rapport with ASEAN—which also has institutional dialogues with US, Russia and China—is a measure of success of India’s foreign policy under his stewardship. A lasting promoter of India-ASEAN closeness is the acceptance by the world powers of the re-designation of the Asia-Pacific region as the Indo-Pacific zone, much to the chagrin of China.
Three distinct features of India’s growing closeness to ASEAN give this relationship a stable base. First, India’s foreign policy under Modi rests on the fundamental premise that all bilateral or multilateral agreements will serve mutual economic interests and have a convergence on issues of security. This comes off very clearly in matters like trade, terrorism and maritime security that affect both India and ASEAN. Secondly, there is a breakthrough as far as India’s initiative of striking a note of cultural and people-to-people contacts with its East Asian neighbours was concerned. The fabulous display of this at the Republic Day Parade where the ASEAN tableaux highlighted the imprint of Ramayana as well as Buddha on the region, would impact this harmony in a positive way, for it steers clear of political ideology and any reflection on sovereign identity. And lastly, India has brought to bear the image of a hospitable and generous nation in its dealings with ASEAN nations, respecting their sensitivities and identifying itself with their needs, apprehensions and aspirations. India-ASEAN relationship is evidently free of conflicts of any kind so far.
PM Modi flagged off an optimistic agenda of economic and strategic cooperation with ASEAN when he first attended the summit in Myanmar in 2014. He presented a framework of India-ASEAN Strategic Partnership and highlighted the importance of speedily executing connectivity projects with particular reference to information highways. While recommending cooperation on skill development, tourism around the Buddhist circuit and enlargement of trade, Prime Minister Modi underlined the need for working together against terrorism, extremism, drugs, arms and money laundering. He put the focus on maritime security for trade and passage, and without naming China, called for compliance with international law and norms on maritime issues. At the recent summit at Delhi marking the completion of 25 years of India-ASEAN Dialogue, PM Modi described the occasion as “a remarkable milestone in a remarkable journey” as the “dialogue partners are now strategic partners”, and emphasised that this partnership aimed at keeping our seas safe and secure.
In Modi regime, India has, in a sustained way, given substance and depth to its relations with South East Asia. India is actively partnering ASEAN in the institutions led by this regional organisation—East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Defence Ministerial Meeting (ADMM) and Asian Region Forum (ARF) for advancing peace and stability in the region. At this year’s ASEAN summit in Delhi, PM Modi gave a further push to the Act East policy by projecting India’s Northeast as “a bridge to build India-ASEAN ties of our dreams”. Pointing out that India was now the world’s fastest growing major economy that made it easier and smoother every passing day to do business here, Modi hoped that “ASEAN will be an integral part of new India’s transformation”. He reminded the summit that both sides had immense “opportunities and responsibilities” and expected it to chart a steady course through the “turbulence of our times” to a stable and peaceful future.
India’s policy towards South East Asia based on convergence on economic development, security and cultural bondings is poised for good results. The trade statistics will pick up with time. ASEAN leaders have responded favourably to Modi’s initiatives towards creating a convergence between India and ASEAN on both economic relationship and security. They have conveyed their appreciation of PM Modi’s address at Davos that put the focus on terrorism, protectionism and inwardly looking economic policies. India has emerged as the regional power that has stakes in global security issues like the dispute on South China Sea or violation of international law and rules relating to maritime domain in this part of the world. Modi’s appeal to ASEAN to use the power of digital technology, innovation and connectivity to transform lives at an unprecedented speed has created an image of India as a power that worked for peace and prosperity and cooperation against the global threats to security.
It must be mentioned that at Davos, Modi established India as a thought leader in today’s unsafe and economically divided world. He presented India as a uniquely placed engine of growth with its technology acumen and demographic dividend. At the same time, with his characteristic frankness he said that terrorism which was the biggest threat to the world had been made even more dangerous by the attempts to draw a distinction between “good terrorists” and “bad terrorists”. He stated that peace was a prerequisite for growth and development and projected Brand India as a united nation that envisioned “reform, perform and transform” as the route to progress. He counselled the rich developed countries to do more to help emerging markets pollute less without sacrificing economic growth. There is little doubt that PM Modi has pushed India several notches up towards the goal of becoming an effective world power through a seamless rise in the region and on the global stage.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director Intelligence Bureau