Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Act East Policy has been motivated by two primary objectives.
Firstly, objective has been to rapidly expand trade, economic and investment ties with the fast-growing economies of East and Southeast Asia. Secondly, India has to ensure that at a time when China is forcibly seizing control of Islands, well beyond its legally recognised maritime frontiers, partnerships are being built with ASEAN members and maritime powers, like Japan, to ensure shipping lines of communication across Indian Ocean and South China Sea are kept open and secure.
The 2014 Modi-Obama Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region proclaimed: “We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea.”
During his recent visit to New Delhi, the Commander of the US Pacific Fleet Admiral Scott Swift questioned the rationale of China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ policies, designed ostensibly to promote regional maritime and road connectivity, across Indian and Pacific Oceans. He noted that China’s warships are increasingly patrolling Indian Ocean. There is also concern about China’s policies of seizing Islands in South China Sea, in violation of International Covenants.
While Admiral Swift may have sounded reassuring in Delhi, there is a growing unease in our eastern neighbourhood, most notably among ASEAN countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia, and even American allies such as Japan and South Korea, about the whimsical approach of the Trump administration. Trump has snubbed allies, such as Australian Prime Minister, while showering constant praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping. This has come after he had unilaterally abrogated the Free Trade Trans-Pacific Partnership, signed by the US, Japan, South Korea, Australia and a number of ASEAN members, among others.
The serious concerns of ASEAN leaders about Trump’s policies were evident during the recent ASEAN Summit in the Philippines. While some governments urged reiteration of past policies, declaring Chinese construction and militarisation of artificial islands in South China Sea inadmissible, the Manila Summit avoided any mention of these Chinese actions. This, despite the fact that President Trump spoke personally to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. China predictably welcomed this new ASEAN position. If Trump regards himself as ‘great’ in striking ‘deals’, Jinping has clearly outmanoeuvred him in ASEAN. ASEAN countries evidently prefer to do ‘deals’ with Jinping than Trump.
It is evident that China has outsmarted the US, across our eastern neighbourhood, with American credibility now low. Beijing believes the path is clear for consolidating its policy of seizing and militarising disputed islands across its maritime boundaries. While Trump recognises the key role of Singapore, it was only the head of the military junta in Thailand and Duterte, who had abused Obama, who were found worthy of receiving personal phone calls from Washington.
These developments are going to impact India’s economic and strategic ties with its eastern ASEAN neighbours. With the US having walked out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the way is clear for China to emerge as the dominant economic partner for ASEAN. Chinese mouthpiece Global Times has gleefully noted how China can now promote its proposals for regional economic integration, through its
Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, while gleefully claiming that its terms will be such that New Delhi will be excluded. India now faces new challenges in implementing Modi’s Act East Policy.