Bolstering India’s ‘Act East’ policy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently concluded his five-day visit to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. During the visit to Indonesia, he discussed with President Joko Widodo issues of bilateral, regional and global importance.

The two sides signed 15 Memorandums of Understanding in various fields including, defence, space technology, scientific and technological cooperation, railways. In a significant move to enhance the two countries’ bilateral ties, the two leaders decided to establish a New Strategic Comprehensive Partnership.

Undoubtedly, one of the essential foundation stones of the strategic partnership between New Delhi and Jakarta is the expanding security and military cooperation. For India, Indonesia’s strategic location is very vital, as it controls the entry points to Strait of Malacca, the main sea route between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, linking major Asian economies including India, China, Japan and others.

Thus, cooperation with Indonesia would ensure freedom of navigation and sea communication, as well as to effectively tackling issues of piracy and terrorism in the region. The Chinese assertive behaviour in the South China Sea and its focus on improving its naval prowess has also assumed another important factor for New Delhi to foster cooperation with Jakarta in the security area.

It was in this context that the two leaders recognised the importance of freedom of navigation and over-flight on the high seas, unimpeded lawful commerce and resolving maritime disputes by peaceful means.

While the First Security Dialogue between the two sides was held in New Delhi in January 2018 with focus on bilateral cooperation in countering terrorism, terrorist financing, money laundering, arms smuggling, trafficking in persons and cyber crime, during Modi’s visit, the two sides reiterated their commitment to the partnership in the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) to maintain peace, prosperity in the region.

The two leaders reaffirmed their commitment in the field of defence, with the signing of Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) between the two countries. They further directed officials of both sides to expand mutually beneficial collaboration between their defence industries for joint production of equipment, technology transfer, technical assistance and capacity building as well as sourcing of defence equipment.

Economic and trade ties have significantly increased ever since the two countries signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2010, with Indonesia becoming India’s largest trading partner in the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), with the trade volume being $18 billion. The two sides have decided to increase the volume of the bilateral trade to $ 50billion by 2025.

India firmly believes that closer ties with Indonesia would strengthen its stature in this organisation and also in the East Asia Summit, which is a group of Asean-led 17 countries. Consequently, apart from economic benefits, cooperation with Indonesia is seen as an effort towards counterbalancing China’s increasing clout in the region.

After a brief stop in Malaysia, Modi travelled to Singapore where he delivered the keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue. In his keenly watched speech at Asia’ premier security forum, Modi made no secret of India’s leading role in ensuring peace and security in the Indo-Pacific, while reinforcing India’s deep historical and cultural ties with Singapore and other countries of Southeast Asia.

Asian rivalry

In an oblique reference to China, Modi urged that “Asia of rivalry will hold us all back. Asia of cooperation will shape this century”. He strongly articulated New Delhi’s ambition of promoting a free, open, inclusive Indo-Pacific region which embraces all in a common pursuit of progress and prosperity. 

During his visit, India and Singapore also signed 13 agreements at the “India and Singapore: Stepping into Future.” Modi and his Singapore counterpart Lee Hsien Loong commended the armed forces for maintaining a high level of annual exercises, goodwill visits and professional exchanges.

The two countries will hold the 25th and enhanced edition of bilateral annual naval exercises — SIMBEX — later this year, which has underscored the two countries’ ardent desire to foster deep naval and maritime cooperation in the region.

Surely, at a time when India is viewed by Southeast Asian countries as a better place for doing business and the US, under President Donald Trump, has stepped up efforts to ensure the balance of power against China by using the term “Indo-Pacific for Asia Pacific”, the meeting between Modi and US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis in Singapore assumed an added significance for furthering cooperation among India, the US and other countries in the region.

While Modi’s visit to these countries has given a big boost to India’s “Act East” policy, the revealing regional security situation and the shared interests of India and Asean countries will continue to drive the two sides to expand and explore the areas of their engagement in the future.

(The writer is Visiting Fellow, National Chengchi University, Taipei)

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Bolstering India’s ‘Act East’ policy

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