India’s Act East policy has been often cited as the transition from Look East to more action and outcome oriented Act Policy. The effects can be felt in the context of signing of Strategic Partnership agreement with Malaysia, Singapore and laying the template for the more economic orientated initiatives. This includes accelerating work on the Trilateral Highway project(India- Myanmar-Thailand) to be completed by 2020, and Mekong India Economic Corridor(MIEC) which as languishing for the last five years. This is intended to create better conditions for investment and trade. India’s willingness to lower tariffs under the pursuit to be a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, likely to be signed by the end of 2019 or early 2020. PM Modi has been very particular with regard to outcome aspects and has been travelling to many of these countries during his term as prime minister. He endorsed comprehensive strategic partnership with Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia and also engaged Indonesia in a more proactive way through personal interactions with the Indonesian President Joko Widodo along the sidelines of important meetings.
In pursuit of meeting the objectives of Act East policy and engaging the important players in Southeast Asia, India has worked to enhance the base capacity in the Andaman and Nicobar islands and posted the former Chief of Naval Staff Admiral D K Joshi as Lieutenant Governor of these islands. Clearly, this was meant to understand the complex utility of these islands as the forward post and also meaning fully engaging Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, lying along the western outreaches of the Southeast Asia. India has also enhanced the length of the two air strips in these islands and build two more jetties for harbouring bigger ships in the environmentally fragile islands. Regarding power generation and developing digital connectivity plans are afoot. There are proposals for helping the local fishermen community who have been the eyes and ears of navy. PM Modi undertook various objectives so that these can have better catch and also provide information related to drug smugglers and arms couriers. These waters have been rich in natural resources and also have varied marine life including sea cucumbers which are scavenged by the fishermen of other countries.
Apart from consolidating the Andaman and Nicobar Command and facilitating better interaction with the Southeast Asia nations, India regularized the naval exercises with Singapore and also undertook regular port visits to Malaysia, Indonesian and Singapore as wellas Vietnam in the recent past with more frequency. The one aspect of India’s relations with other important players such as Philippines, Brunei, Laos and Cambodia has been much below par. With regard to Philippines even though the Defence Cooperation agreement was signed in 2006 there has not been much effective engagement because of structural constraints of Philippines in terms of equipment. India is wary of the fact that engaging Vietnam and Philippines at the same time would set alarm bells in China regarding its objective in South China Sea. However, the Philippines has become important because one of the recruiters of ISIS in India was captured in Philippines and as a counter-terrorism support India provided a sum of 500,000 USD to support Philippines counter-terrorism initiatives. Thailand acts as the natural extension of India but given the fact that Thailand is seen as a Buddhist brother and have more economic, cultural linkages but defence linkages have only gained momentum in the last few years. The bigger question that needs to be asked is why this SVIMM strategy and how one can say that this is the strategy that India intends to follow to meet its strategic and economic objectives.
The SVIMM strategy has four critical components embedded into it. In terms of strategic relevance and importance all the five countries are of immense strategic relevance to India. Myanmar, being the neighbour, has supported India in the last few years on counter-insurgency operations and also Myanmar’s accommodative stance with regard to Indian army’s hot pursuit to kill Indian insurgents in Myanmar shows the resolve and the good relation that the two countries have. Further, India responded in kind and did not criticize openly about the Rohingyas refuges and Myanmar’s action against few of the Rohingyas groups having terror leanings. This shows as quid pro quo as well as deep understanding between the two nations. Singapore, by default, acts as the friend of India and the economic and strategic ties that the two nations have developed over two decades have been strengthened when PM Modi signed the Strategic partnership agreement with Singapore giving the necessary impetus to the already burgeoning relationship. Singapore hosts US ships at Changi naval base and is a strategic partner for US. Singapore hosted PM Modi for the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018 when PM Modi became the first Indian PM to address the gathering. While starting on note of inclusion and citing China as a responsible stakeholder in indo-Pacific architecture, diplomatically PM Modi did a somersault and institutionalized the Indo-Pacific division in the Ministry of External Affairs which meant that India wants to win confidence of both US and China while carefully calibrating its role and agenda.
Further, Vietnam has emerged as an important player and Vietnam despite being not a very open liberal economy was accorded the status of market economy when the negotiations with ASEAN were stuck in 2009. Vietnam being a valued defence and strategic partner was given the market economy status after due consideration. The SVIMM strategy has few inherent objectives from the point of view of India. Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia are the stakeholders with regard to Malacca straits security and India’s wants that information and necessary support should be provided to the three countries. Secondly, Myanmar and Vietnam has been important for India because of India counter-insurgency initiatives and also Myanmar being the gateway to mainland Southeast Asia. Vietnam is critical for defense purposes as well as India’s gas exploration activities in South China Sea. Further, Japan, Korea and other like-minded countries have undertaken projects in Myanmar, and India would like to complement and involve in partnership with those countries to counter China’s BRI. Indonesia has been driving force with regard to building consensus within ASEAN on Indo–Pacific which is also close to India’s strategic ambitions. Indonesia has joined the BRI project but has not gained large projects from China. Further, Chinese diaspora is seen with apprehension within Indonesia because of their dominance in Indonesia’s economy. The SVIMM strategy would consolidate India’s position in the Southeast Asia while at the same time the other three partners of the Quad have also been giving signs of model cooperative projects in these countries to undermine Chinese presence and also counter BRI. The proposed Indo-Pacific economic corridor would integrate South Asian and Southeast Asian economies and the SVIMM strategy would act as a vehicle for that purpose.
India would like to embark on more project specific initiatives in these countries such as genome research institutes, biotechnology, joint ventures in defence production and also cooperate in developing power grids, improving its electricity transmission networks, personnel training, higher technical education and developing energy efficient products. India has launched low cost satellites and most of the countries are in need of low cost satellite launching facility for both civilian and defence purposes. Lastly, these five countries are very important in the larger strategic scheme of things in Southeast Asia because of relatively large armed forces, and better economies to meet India’s long term objectives. PM Modi’s stop over at Malaysia in 2018 to meet and greet Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad during his visit to Singapore shows the fact that Malaysia has been important and would remain important. The two countries’ are users of Scorpene submarines and also Sukhoi-30 aircrafts. The defence dialogue between the two addresses a lot of issues. However, it has been irregular. Further, India Muslim cleric Zakir Naik is still residing in Malaysia and India would like Malaysian cooperation to get him back to India to get more information related to extremist ideologies and ideologues which have been working in India. While the SVIMM strategy has more connectivity, defence and economic components embedded into it and in the next India- ASEAN Plan of Action it might also reflect in the strategic documents.