Rebooting India’s act east policy

Instead of competing with China over providing material incentives, India should use its cultural ties to build better relations with ASEAN nations

Published: 15th November 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th November 2017 03:18 AM   |  A+A-

During his three-day visit to the Philippines, Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in a series of ASEAN-centric summits and held bilateral talks with almost all the important leaders of the Asia-Pacific region. Modi’s hard sell of India’s investment-friendly environment, its regional role and relaunching of the Quad marked a rebooting his Act East Policy.

The Quad, a group of four democracies (US, Japan, India and Australia), was known for its long-dead senior-official-level mechanism. Its relaunch has kindled speculation that it would put India, a country which is otherwise seen a second-tier observer in East Asia summits, in the limelight. The ASEAN+3+3 configuration has considered Australia, India and New Zealand latecomers and less important when compared to China, Japan and South Korea. In any case China always remains the big elephant in most of their parlays and prognoses.

Returning to his hyperactive foreign policy focused now on the high-octane ‘engaging East Asia’, Modi has invited all 10 leaders of ASEAN to be the chief guests at the 2018 Republic Day—a first of its kind. Only on two earlier occasions has India invited two—instead of the usual one—foreign chief guests for its Republic Day celebrations.

Come January, these 10 leaders will also participate in the India-ASEAN friendship summit. This would commemorate the completion of 25 years of India becoming a dialogue partner of ASEAN, 15 years of summit-level interactions and 45 years of strategic partnership. Juxtaposed with the revival of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ formulation by US President Donald Trump, these are signs of the Act East policy finally gaining some credibility.

It was at the 2014 India-ASEAN summit in Myanmar that Modi in his debut meeting with ASEAN leaders heralded the transformation of India’s ‘Look East’ policy into ‘Act East’ policy. But with every passing year this seemed like nothing but an appendage to then US President Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia which itself was viewed as a reaction to China’s unprecedented rise. Since then, China has only risen higher. So India’s ‘Act East’ policy has to ensure it does not again become a prisoner to this big power muscle-flexing, or worse, join the bandwagon of Trump’s ‘open and free Indo-Pacific’ rhetoric. However, India has lately drifted to talking tough and launching parallel initiatives.

This does not appear to be in tune with most other powers hedging against China’s rise. This explains why the much hyped Quad was reduced to a meeting of junior officers and why Japan is talking of opening it to France and Germany—further rationalising its anti-China profile.

It is important to underline the fact that in spite of the ‘Look East’ policy being celebrated as a success, the talk of India becoming a counterweight to China has remained just that, talk. That’s not where India’s advantages lie. And this  has a lot to do with not just the increasing power asymmetry between Beijing and New Delhi but also with the nature of their politics.

While Xi recently rose to lead China for another 10 years, Modi will soon be heading for his next general elections. For good or bad, the nature of India’s democracy and federalism has had a major impact on the efficiency of Modi’s hyperactive foreign policy. India cannot compete with China in providing material incentives. It has to focus on building a positive agenda highlighting democracy and multiculturalism that connects India to ASEAN and highlight India has no disputes with any of these countries.

At least four of the 10 ASEAN members have serious maritime disputes with China. But China uses its bilateral trade with ASEAN—six times that of India’s—to build ties. China’s trade with ASEAN has risen from being just $7.96 billion in 1991 to $452 billion by 2016. Likewise, China’s investments which stood at $1.1 billion in 2001 was $100 billion by 2016. And now the juggernaut of Belt and Road Initiative is making ASEAN worry about its increasing over-dependency on Beijing.

Can the Quad provide any answers to it? ASEAN’s bilateral trade with Japan is $239 billion; United States $212 billion and only $60 billion with India. On the other hand, China remains the largest trading partner for each of these four countries. China’s annual bilateral trade with US is $500 billion, Japan $300 billion, Australia $135 billion and India $75 billion.

This enormous trade deficit gives China  lots of extra cash to invest back in each of the Quad members. For example, to address their persistent $350 billion dollars of trade deficit, US President Trump’s recent visit to Beijing led to China signing contracts worth $250 billion with American companies such as Boeing, Ford, General Electric and for the purchase of liquefied natural gas from Alaska.

The Quad today talks of maintaining a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.” It was originally proposed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2005 in the backdrop of virulent anti-Japanese riots in Chinese cities. The body first met exactly a decade ago in 2007 and in a similar ASEAN summit in Manila. It had quickly disappeared given China’s harsh demarches to each of its participants. But now in 2017, it looks like China is not so worried.

The foreign ministry spokesperson in Beijing only questioned China’s exclusion and hoped that any action by the Quad would not be directed at any third party, implying China. Other Chinese commentaries underscored that the Indo-Pacific waters was already free and open. This shows China’s increasing self-confidence and also its assessment about the Quad’s leverages. And that precisely explains why the Quad talks or naval exercises have stopped making China even agitated.

Swaran Singh

Professor, School of International Studies, JNU


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