China on mind, time to 'Act East'

China on mind, time to 'Act East'

The Delhi Declaration issued at the end of the recent India-ASEAN summit underscores the growing range of issues on which the India and the 10-nation grouping share concerns and are looking to cooperate. In the past, India-ASEAN statements avoided using terms like 'cross-border terrorism' or 'maritime security co-operation', perhaps out of apprehension that this would ruffle feathers in Islamabad and Beijing. That hesitation appears to have been overcome. The Delhi Declaration issued last week explicitly affirms that India and ASEAN will work together in "countering cross-border movement of terrorists and foreign terrorist fighters." It calls for full and effective implementation of the "Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea" and an early conclusion of the "Code of Conduct in the South China Sea." In doing so, Delhi has shown solidarity with ASEAN's position in the South China Sea dispute with China. Improving connectivity in the region is another issue that leaders of India and ASEAN have pledged to prioritise.

Inviting all the leaders of ASEAN as chief guests at India's Republic Day was a diplomatic master-stroke. India was able to showcase its military might, plural society and soft power to Southeast Asia. It sent out a strong signal to ASEAN of the priority Delhi accords to building strong bonds with the regional grouping. In an article published in 27 newspapers in the 10 ASEAN countries, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed to the fact that India-ASEAN relations are "free from contests and claims." India has underscored to the south-east Asian nations that it is keen to become their strong partner. Now, Delhi must back its effusive words and flamboyant diplomacy with strong action to deepen bonds with the ASEAN. In 2014, the Modi government promised to move from a 'Look East' policy to 'Act East.' It's time to fulfil this promise. There is enormous potential. India's trade with ASEAN has grown by 25 times in as many years. But compared to China's trade with the regional grouping, which is worth $473 billion, India's is a paltry $73 billion.

Southeast Asia looks upon India as a bit of a snail when it comes to completing infrastructure projects. The India-Myanmar-Thailand highway, which was to be ready in 2016, is nowhere near completion. Meanwhile, India has proposed extension of this highway to Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam. ASEAN countries will not take India's proposals seriously so long as its plans remain on paper. India will need to be more dynamic and energised in its engagement with them. Else, it will be China, not India, that will provide ASEAN with inspiration and dominate its imagination.

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