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South Asia

Carving its Own ASEAN Path: India in between America and China

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Authors: Tridivesh Singh Maini and Maithili Parikh

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] I [/yt_dropcap] ndia has invested immensely to strengthen its economic and strategic ties with South East Asia, over the past decade Japan and South Korea specifically but not exclusively, and the current government under Narendra Modi has sought to only further consolidate relations with the countries of South East Asia.

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.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India

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South Asia

Kashmir burns as lockdown continues

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The valley is on fire again, and it is engulfing the whole region. It is not just about Pakistan or India but the onus remains on the world, every person, every country, and every individual as Kashmir suffers from these flames.

It is burning everywhere. The dispute of Pakistan-India is not new. It has elevated from its dormant levels. From the disruption of peace-talks to election fueled border skirmishes, every action and every other effort in the region is worsening the situation.

Time has stood still. It has stopped healing wounds and only the lacerations have increased. As the lockdown persists, the agony persists and continues to darken the skies.

The cries of innocent Kashmiris (nine million of them) scream on the loss of their loved ones. The arrests under the Public safety Act (PSA) has demeaned its meaning in Kashmiri eyes and in the eyes of the world. Everyone arrested under this act have gone under detention without trial for a maximum of two years. As absurd it sounds, the trauma is more horrific.

And all of this began with the passing of Article 370. And it has raised many questions in the minds of the people living in these areas

Voted by the majority of Indian parliament members, that is,351 votes in favor and only 72 against, on 5th of August. The timing, the stunts being played by the restraining government are to be questioned. Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has claimed to normalize the abnormal situation in the state of Jammu Kashmir. But the truth cannot be further from this. In the six months since, the state could not have destabilized more had Pakistan directly intervened. At its lowest ebb of the past 40 years, the situation needs to be normalized.

And in this manner Modi and the current Indian government have set the template for every dictatorial regime. Arrest all possible voices of a region, cut all communications, blockade the region and you are on your way.

Internet, tele-communication and any sort of media coverage was limited to say the least. As millions suffered badly with each passing day of the curfew. The valley burnt and there were no witnesses as a complete lockdown continued as the government tried to normalize the state.

But the images of the valley made their way out and the stories they tell do not need much interpretation. They support their tales without much context. It will be wrong to assume their context but there was no one to state it. Such was the stranglehold of the government. And this was in stark contrast to what was aimed at.

To revive Kashmir’s economy and make it come at par to rest of the country, a lot of different directions were available. So why mess with the hornets nest.

The necessary steps that Modi’s government had to take were promote local governance and encourage new investment plans in the state. Outdated plans had to be set aside and a renewed focus on ones that bring the state to the forefront after lagging behind rest of India for so many years.

What Mr. Modi does is anyone’s guess. After all, he has been the face of RSS backed BJP known for its neo-Nazi politics. The great face of secular India maligned by the idiosyncratic visions of a deranged lunatics.

And it has not played out well in Kashmir. The state’s lack of governance has had a detrimental impact on its development and the current legislature change will not help its case. All these measures were strongly criticized by the international media and on political forums.

The need to stabilize the region of Indian occupied Kashmir becomes very frequent question in the minds who follow the news update on the region. For Pakistan and India, the claim of Kashmir could not be more skeptical than in current situation. And impact current affairs situations in the geography.

From America taking out its soldiers from Afghanistan, to unrest in Iran and middle-east. The noisy neighbors and Kashmir issue impacts everyone. And as we learn from Soviet retreat from Afghanistan and its ensuring unrest, South Asia is not going to stabilize for some time. And Kashmir will be the talking point.

Wisdom would suggest that this issue should be decided sooner rather than later. Even if India’s claim of Kashmir being an unresolved matter of India, it should be resolved at the earliest. This has to be done some day, and with American troops leaving Afghanistan, doing it before will be a good time.

The freedom fighters have been engaged in Afghanistan for the better part of two decades and the focus will return on Kashmir. The suffering of millions of Muslims cannot be overlooked and the region will not be able to stabilize. It is in the best interests of all parties involved, especially India.

On the other side of the border, Pakistan is watching eagerly and getting support for its international claims. Peace talks have been proposed and they would mutually benefit both the countries and stabilize the region. But no movement has been seen on this front. Both Islamabad and Delhi are far from sitting across each other.

Pakistan itself has unilaterally changed the structure of Azad Kashmir government. And they did it by changing the status of the Gilgit Baltistan and Azad Kashmir territories last year. Any kind of the unrest in the Kashmir state has a direct effect on the Azad Kashmir.

And Pakistan cannot keep a blind eye on a region as close as the Indian Kashmir.It has openly talked about freedom of Kashmir from India and demands from the world to support its rights. And as Pakistan supports the Kashmir issue on all forums indiscriminately, the pressure is piling on Delhi.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced solidarity with Kashmir. His government is taking the issue to every forum possible including the human rights forums in United Nations (UN).Islamabad knows the significance of this period and has highlighted the violations happening under Article 370.Pakistan’s support Kashmir is firm and is not budging.

As the issue takes rage, other countries also got involved in it as sitting back and ignoring the matter is out of question.

The United States (US) senate committee on foreign relations has called to bring an end to this type of “humanitarian crisis” in Kashmir. Even Donald Trump has offered to support in any way to solve this “complex issue”.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping has shared that he is personally keeping abreast with the situation in Kashmir and would “support Pakistan in issues related to its core interests.”Xi, however, added that both India and Pakistan should resolve the dispute through peaceful dialogue.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan took up the issue in the UN General Assembly. He called to resolve it through peace dialogues as they ensure the safety, equity and happiness of the people of the region rather thana rmed collisions.

Even Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom stated that the people of Kashmir “must be included” in decisions concerning their future.

Decades have passed and there is a dire need to resolve this issue as the time flies it brings more anger in the residents. Open dialogues area solution which is in the best interest of Kashmiri people. Other repercussions are hard to fathom and difficult to digest.

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South Asia

How Internal Political Instability Risks Threatening Pakistan’s International Commitments

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Dharna (Mass sit-ins) politics in Pakistan is not a new phenomenon as it has happened several times by various political parties and other entities. Yet, it is the “timing of such Dharnas” that is the most important thing for the success and failure of such methods when pressurizing governments. Currently Pakistan faces numerous problems ranging from an unstable economy, terrorism, staunch opposition from other major political parties such as the PML (N) and PPP, the Kashmir issue, the Afghanistan matter and mounting Western pressure regarding CPEC.  Any misadventure created by a Dharna or any other issue could cost the present government a heavy price in the form of regional commitments considering the current situation of the country.

Recently Bilawal Bhutto announced a Dharna to be held in March in addition to the one planned by Fazul Rehman this month. Both parties through Dharna politics want to pressurize the incumbent government via politicizing the widespread inflation plaguing the Pakistani economy. They also aimed to further build on how Fazul Rehman through his previous Dharna the previous year had tried to pressurize the Imran Khan government along similar lines. One of his top demands then was calling for a re-election because he considered the election of July 2018 rigged. This demand was favored by wide swathes of the opposition because of their resentments against the existing government and its policies.

As is the current situation within Pakistan is already unstable because of various problems. The most pressing being Western pressure being applied through the FATF and IMF in key development projects such as CPEC. Under the current circumstances, the government cannot afford any kind of strike or resentment by political parties which can diminish its image at the national as well as global levels.

This is apparent in how, the United States and India through the FATF and other means have been pressurizing Pakistan on the pretext of clamping down on money laundering which is allegedly being used by various terrorist organizations within Pakistan. In this regard, any kind of trouble generated within the country through Dharna politics or any other means would lead to the country gaining further unfavorable international attention. The resulting political instability could further bring Pakistan closer to being placed on the FATF black-list. If that happens then Pakistan would suffer immensely giving birth to a whole host of new political and socio-economic restrictions for the whole nation.

According to the present government, it has already been struggling to control the list of demands given by the FATF to avoid being put on the blacklist. This was evident in the recent visit by Imran Khan and the Army Chief to the US where a whole range of issues were clarified with the US government. These included the internal situation within Pakistan along with other regional concerns such as terrorism, the Afghan peace process, the Kashmir dispute and Chinese involvement through CPEC. Moreover, the statement by American president Donald Trump should be taken seriously by the present government that America with the cooperation of various nations will protect human rights violations throughout the world and fight against radical Islamic terrorism. There are many precedents where America has been intervening within various regions of the world under the pretext of protecting human rights and eradicating terrorism.

In addition, there is no denying that India wants to exploit the situation further by projecting the Pakistani state as the mother of terrorism at multiple regional and global forums. There can be various motives behind this move in which the Kashmir issue and RSS ideology hold immense importance. It is widely believed that PM Narendra Modi wants to divert the attention of Pakistan as well as other regional and global forums from the atrocities and human rights violations taking place in Jammu and Kashmir.

In this regard, Imran Khan has been trying his best to halt Dharna politics through multiple strategies by calling for political unity to help alleviate the current difficult situation in the country. This for instance has been evident in his attempts to prioritize the threat from India regarding the Kashmir issue well as India’s designs to portray Islamabad as a terrorist state, above the internal politics being waged within Pakistan. Such concerns have made the situation of the country considerably sensitive hence the government has to behave and act sensibly to control the emerging situation. If such issues are not going to be solved skillfully and efficiently, then the entire nation is likely to bear the consequences and repercussions of the troubles generated through such internal instability.

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South Asia

India’s Extended Indo-Pacific’ and Enhanced Cooperation with the European Union

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The Indo-Pacific has emerged as a new strategic theatre in the 21st century. In this geopolitical construct, India occupies a prime place and it has provided the country with a platform to project its power and influence beyond the traditional South Asian region. Besides, it facilitates India to move up in the ladder in the international power configuration. It was a natural extension of India’s Look-East policy launched in the early years of the post-Cold War era to integrate the Indian economy with the East Asian economic dynamism and lately it has been extended into the strategic domain as India’s strategic relationship with fellow democratic countries in the region grew stronger. India is now an original member of almost all regional security mechanisms of the region. This has been a major shift in the approach of regional countries because in the past India was excluded from the Asia-Pacific construct and was not considered a part of the region, politically and economically.

India embraced the Indo-Pacific construct despite it being an American initiative for widening its hub and spoke network beyond its traditional alliance system and bring India into the new security architecture under the US leadership. The US has enthusiastically supported the growth of India-Japan strategic cooperation, which formed the basis of the Indo-Pacific construct. It has resulted in India’s increasing strategic engagement with the Pacific littoral countries and enhancing India’s profile on security issues in the region. The formation of the quadrilateral security dialogue (quad) mechanism is the culmination of the idea that major powers take more responsibility to preserve peace and stability in the region.

A major reason for India’s interest in the Indo-Pacific construct has been the pre-eminent role that other countries have accorded to India in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). Such recognition by other major powers is a key indicator in judging India’s status in the larger international power configuration. At the same time, India believes that partnering with the US, especially in the Indo-Pacific construct would help it acquire advanced defense technology necessary to counter the challenges emanating from its

traditional rivals such as Pakistan and China. However, India’s enthusiasm in strengthening the quad and treating the Indo-Pacific framework as a beneficial geopolitical sphere is diminishing. Instead, India’s Indo-Pacific strategy now focuses on to the western part of the Indian Ocean.

There are three main reasons for this change of attitude: firstly, for India, the existing Indo-Pacific is complex and security driven. The fundamental objective of free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concept is to preserve rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, but it is inextricably linked to alliances and containment strategies, which India has never been a party to. Secondly, for New Delhi, the existing Indo-Pacific construct is characterised by Sino-American rivalry for regional dominance. India does not want to be entangled in this competition. India doesn’t want to be seen as against China as the construct itself is being touted as anti-China mechanism by China. Officially, New Delhi doesn’t consider that China’s increasing naval activities in the Indian Ocean is to contain India’s maneuverability in its backyard. India’s newly appointed first Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat has downplayed the concern raised by the naval fraternity that China’s increasing naval presence in the Indian Ocean region is not against India but to protect China’s legitimate interest in the region.

New Delhi engages with both countries-albeit in varying degrees-but expects the US to remain as the most powerful nation in the Indo-Pacific. Similarly, New Delhi’ naval capability is not sufficiently enough to manage its security interests in both the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. The existing multilateral mechanism under the leadership of ASEAN supported by the US preponderant power could well preserve the rules based order in the Indo-Pacific.  And thirdly, strategically, the existing Indo-Pacific comprises eastern half of the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific but India considers it inclusive and more wider extending from the Americas coast to the African coast – call it ‘extended Indo-Pacific’, which include Russia, eastern coast of the Pacific , West Asia, and African coastal states. This will bring India’s traditional defence partner Russia into the construct and also it could dispel China’s concerns.

India’s ‘extended Indo-Pacific’. Source: Delhi Policy Group Indo-Pacific Monitor, Vol 1, No, 1, 2020

India’s ‘look-west’ policy and enhanced cooperation with the EU

India looks to avoid a spill-over effect of the US-China rivalry in the western Pacific into the Indian Ocean or a direct competition between the India and China. At the same time, Chinese increasing naval presence in the Indian Ocean region is a great concern for India. To prevent China getting strategic influence in the Indian Ocean, India is building a coalition of littoral countries as well as enhancing its cooperation with the European Union. Britain, France and Germany have already shown their interests by raising their profile in the Indo-Pacific, with freedom of navigation operations. Since EU have already made its presence in the western part of the Indian Ocean by participating in the anti-piracy operation and doesn’t have any hegemonic ambition,  a strong naval cooperation between India and EU bodes well. Britain and France have legitimate stakeholder status in the Indian Ocean region and India’s defense partnership with both is also progressing well. 

Since US commitment to providing guarantee for regional security is diminishing, instead, the Trump administration demands regional countries to take more responsibility both financially as well as militarily, an India-EU strategic partnership would be able to preserve the rules-based order in the India Ocean region. India has now become a reliable strategic partner for the US in the Indian Ocean region so much so that US allies are also inclined to partnering with India. For India’s part, it is ready to cooperate with all major powers that have a legitimate interest in the Indian Ocean region. Under its ‘look-west’ initiative India has recently strengthened relations with countries of the western Indian Ocean which include island countries, African coastal states and West Asia.

The geo-economic situation of the western Indian Ocean region demands a close cooperation between EU countries and India. India has promulgated security and growth for all in the region (SAGAR) as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) targeting the western part of the Indian Ocean rim and islands with a leadership undertone. As an alternative for the ‘debt trap’ which the BRI has turned into, India has taken infrastructure projects both bilaterally and with a third party in the island nations and littoral countries which include Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (ASGC) with Japan. As of 2018, Chinese companies have participated in the construction and operation of a total of 42 ports in 34 countries under the Silk Road scheme, and between 2016 and 2017Chinese firms announced around US$20 billion-worth of investment in nine overseas ports. India cannot match with China’s financial muscle power so it requires economic cooperation with EU.

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