'Act East' gains steam

Six weeks ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Myanmar on his way back from Xiamen, China, where he participated in the BRICS summit. Within days of his return to India, he received Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Ahmedabad. Myanmar and Japan are — geographically, and in terms of their development status -- at two extremities of India’s engagement with south-east Asia and countries further to the east. While the nature and form of India’s bilateral relationships are radically different with the two countries, there is a common thread that underpins the two relationships: both countries are vital to India, although in different ways, in handling an increasingly assertive, even aggressive, China.

India’s relations with Myanmar and Japan fall within the ambit of Modi’s “Act East” policy, which seeks to impart greater energy, vigour and purpose to the “Look East” approach adopted in the 1990s. Over the past two decades, India’s ties with the region, particularly with south-east Asia, have evolved qualitatively. Significantly, this process has coincided with China’s rapid and comprehensive rise. The ASEAN countries, Japan, South Korea and the South Pacific states including Australia and New Zealand have viewed China’s growth as an economic opportunity but are, at the same time, worried that China may become coercive and, therefore, a threat.

These security apprehensions, among other issues, have led them to want, apart from a continuing and strong US presence in Asia-Pacific, greater Indian involvement in the region. Over the past two decades, India’s response has been graduated and positive. Modi has sought to move quickly ahead and comprehensively take relations with Japan, ASEAN and South Korea to a higher plane. He has devoted personal attention to building a rapport with the Japanese leadership. He has attended all three summit-level interactions with ASEAN leaders held since he took office and is due to attend the next one in the Philippines in November. This will be an important occasion for ASEAN as it will mark the golden jubilee of its establishment. It will also be an important year for India and ASEAN, for formal ties were established between the two 25 years ago.

Speaking at the India-ASEAN summit in Myanmar, Modi emphasised India’s historic links with the region. He said, “ancient relations of trade, religion, culture, and traditions” tied the two together. Unlike his predecessors, Modi has strongly celebrated the cultural and religious aspects of the interaction. Thus, he has emphasised the Buddhist connection. This is a correct approach, for it strikes an evocative chord. The Rama Katha is also a bond with some south-east Asian countries where it is part of a living cultural tradition. It has through the centuries acquired local flavours which may in some ways shock many Indians but it denotes an enduring link nevertheless.

Security and commerce are the other areas of India’s contacts with south-east and east Asia. Interaction between the defence forces of many countries of the region and India and between the intelligence services has intensified. Cooperation now embraces maritime security and counter-terrorism. Trade and investments have grown substantially over the past two decades. A negative for relations is India’s poor implementation of projects. This problem continues despite the endeavours made by the Modi government. It adversely impacts the country’s interests, especially as China implements projects in time.

At the last India-ASEAN summit in Vientiane in September 2016, Modi said that India’s ties with ASEAN are “a source of balance and harmony in the region”. Nothing could be a clearer expression of India’s intention to respond to the region’s call for greater engagement as China seeks to knit the region through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). By keeping away from the BRI summit in Beijing, India reinforced the message that it will not play second fiddle to China.

The region is also conscious that like India, the US, the European Union and Japan have reservations on BRI. They have stressed transparency and mutual advantage and the US, like India, has also cautioned that the planned roads and routes need to respect territorial integrity — the reference is to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which passes through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.

China’s threat
China has been a factor in India-Japan relations, especially since India-US ties started to transform. China’s role in the Korean peninsula, where it has assisted the North Korean regime, targets Japan. It is imperative for Japan to look for partners even as it relies on the US security umbrella. Clearly, there is a consensus in Japan over developing its relations with India comprehensively. Modi has seized the opportunity now available to make Japan an important provider of high technology and investments.

As North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile tests and the irresponsible behaviour of its regime attract international attention, India needs to draw attention to China’s dubious role in assisting the strategic programmes of Pakistan and North Korea to check India and Japan (and indirectly the US) respectively. China holds the key to restrain both but is not doing so. Given that India and Japan must bear the brunt of an aggressive China acting directly and through proxies, their cooperation would be in mutual interest. It would help them face a China that is unwilling to follow international norms, as shown by its conduct in the South China Sea.

If the India-Japan engagement helps to meet the Chinese challenge, in Myanmar, which is most important to India’s security in the north-east and for connectivity, China has made great inroads. As the world isolated the Myanmar military after it cracked down on the democratic parties in the late 1980s, China embraced it. If through the CPEC China seeks a firm grip on the Gwadar port in Pakistan, in Myanmar it has traditionally sought access to the Bay of Bengal via the Irrawaddy Corridor. Thus, Modi has done well to nourish India’s ties with Myanmar and has not been fixated on human rights, important as they are.

(The writer is retired secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)

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