In general, Washington has supported India’s greater role in the Indo-Pacific. Before commencing his India visit in April 2016, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter categorically stated, “India is already a very influential and powerful force in the whole Indo-Asia-Pacific region, starting with the Indian Ocean.” In meetings between the US President and Indian PM Modi, cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region has been accorded high priority. In fact, President Obama, who was accused of neglecting India in his first term, has invested significant capital in strengthening the strategic partnership with India and seems to have found common ground with India’s Act East Policy.
India has responded by joining the Malabar Exercises with Japan and the US. India’s maritime diplomacy has been quite pro-active recently, with almost 50 visits and bilateral exercises conducted in the past year alone. New Delhi did not shy away from signing LEMOA (Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement), which has been criticized by some strategic analysts for favoring the US too heavily. The agreement was first proposed by the previous Manmohan Singh government, but due to opposition from within the Congress Party it was scuttled. It would be important to point out that Washington has supported a greater role for India in the India-Pacific region, not only in the strategic sphere, but also in terms of enhancing connectivity between India and South East Asia through the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor which will run through Myanmar and Bangladesh. India has finally embraced the relevance of stronger connectivity with ASEAN countries, beginning with Myanmar. During Myanmar President U Htin Kyaw’s visit to New Delhi in August 2016, expediting the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway (which marked the upgrading of 69 bridges and the Kalewa-Yargi road) was one of the most important issues. Indian PM Modi also spoke for the need of setting up of a joint task force to extend this corridor to Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos.
Considering all of this, New Delhi, while strengthening its strategic ties with the US, should closely watch recent events across ASEAN countries as they may have reduced Washington’s leverage and strengthened China’s position. Economically speaking, Beijing has always been heavily invested in the region. But certain developments have given it much more leeway and leverage in the strategic sphere.
First, one must consider the anti-US posturing of Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte. The President recently stated that military exercises conducted on October 4th would be the last. “You [the United States] are scheduled to hold war games again, which China does not want. I will serve notice to you now, this will be the last military exercise.” Perfecto Yasay, Duterte’s foreign secretary denied this, of course, but subsequent engagements and comments coming out of Manila do not contradict this strategic shift perception. Many believe that Duterte is just playing the US against China and is using this as a means to encourage greater Chinese investment in Philippines. Regardless, these events have significance for Indian foreign policy and must not be ignored.
Second, while Vietnam and China have had recent tensions, India has sought to strengthen strategic ties with Vietnam. The latest iteration being the 500 million USD defense credit offered during the Indian PM’s visit to the country in the first week of September 2016. Out of this amount, 100 million USD will be used for building patrol boats. It was also decided that India would further increase assistance to Vietnam in the sphere of military training. Not coincidentally, less than 2 weeks after the successful visit by Modi, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Vietnam and spoke about the importance of their bilateral relationship. Interestingly, in spite of the tensions between both countries, bilateral trade is estimated to be increasing to over 65 billion USD.
Third, President Obama has not been able to push through the Trans-Pacific Partnership back in the United States, a cherished project of the administration. President Obama acknowledged the opposition to TPP during a joint press conference on August 2, 2016, conducted during Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong’s state visit. Said Obama:
“There’s a real problem but the answer is not cutting off globalization. The answer is how do we make sure that globalization, technology, automation—those things work for us, not against us. TPP is designed to do precisely that.”
The Singapore PM, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in March 2016, alluded to the possible lowering of US influence in ASEAN if the agreement does not go through. Said the Singaporean PM, ‘I think it is important you do ratify this and not either let it stand for years unsettled or, worse, at some point, say “We are not satisfied, let us come back. I am asking for an even better deal,” because that would considerably undermine American credibility and seriousness of purpose, and confidence in America all over the region.’
So the chief question that remains is rather simple: if Washington’s leverage continues to reduce in the region, then what does New Delhi do?
First, India should continue to woo CMLV countries in ASEAN which have been on the margins for far too long. Today these countries are the drivers of growth and true economic motors for the region. This is why India must continue to strengthen economic and strategic ties with both Vietnam and Myanmar. Apart from India's pro-active outreach to these countries, both in the economic and strategic sphere, it is important that India focuses on strengthening construction projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway, which needs to be expedited and extended all the way to Cambodia and Vietnam. This will help the long-term influence of India’s Act East Policy. Bolstering projects like the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor falls into this same category.
Second, while India may be no match for China in terms of investment and bilateral trade for the time being, India should build on its own strengths in areas like capacity-building and promoting a more transparent and efficient private sector. While India has been assisting CMLV countries in IT, English-language training, and agriculture, it should increase the number of scholarships for students from these countries. There is also a need to further enhance people-to-people contact and reestablish long-dormant historical links.
In conclusion, India has its own unique strengths and opportunities in ASEAN. And while finding common ground with the US in the Indo-Pacific is an important aspect of India's Act East Policy, it needs to create its own niche and play to its own strengths without being unduly obsessed by the China factor or by the American alliance.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonipat. One of his areas of interest is India’s Act East Policy.
Maithili Parikh is a student at The Government Law College Mumbai.