How is India’s Act East Policy faring today?
A well-designed policy visit to Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta enabled answers to a question with varied implications and an evaluation of strategic perceptions in the region. Subsequent participation in the just concluded Delhi Dialogue X, the flagship 1.5 track dialogue, lent even greater clarity in this regard.
When India’s Look East Policy became its Act East Policy in November 2014 it helped broaden the nation’s geographical orientation: an essentially ASEAN-centric strategy was expanded to focus on the larger Indo-Pacific region without diluting ties with ASEAN. The consistent endeavour was to build relations with bigger powers (U.S., Japan and even China), while giving due importance to ASEAN member-states. In fact, the latter gained salience and intensity, with Indian leaders and diplomats projecting the equation with ASEAN as representing the inner core of India’s Indo-Pacific policy. This was the central message of the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit, held in Delhi on 25 January 2018.
The ground realities of that message became apparent six months after the January summit and the recent visit by Indian experts to Malaysia and Indonesia. The two countries understand and appreciate India’s economic growth, achievements as a democracy, and sustained and resilient pursuit of its interests. But equally, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta see the negatives too: that India is a slow performer, unaware of the disconnect between declaration and delivery, and that it lacks the vast financial and managerial resources that China possesses.
It also emerged that the Indo-Pacific, as a concept, has been gaining acceptance, more in Indonesia than Malaysia: Malaysia is far more sensitive to the need to keep the Chinese happy. (The Chinese are wary of the Indo-Pacific since they view the idea as antagonistic to them.) Critics in the region view the Indo-Pacific as too closely tied to America’s National Security Strategy, but the other view is that India’s support for the Indo-Pacific is essential to maintain regional balance. The joint statement, entitled “Shared Vision of India-Indonesia Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific”, has been considered path-breaking and innovative.
However, when it comes to the Quad, comprising the four powers – U. S., India, Japan and Australia – an emerging partnership with the unstated aim to counter China, there are very few takers in the ASEAN region. The ASEAN argument is that its member-nations are small or middle powers as compared to the U.S. and China, and that they are not inclined to be caught in the U.S.-China or even India-China conflict. ASEAN scholars draw comfort from the fact that Prime Minister Modi expounded his concept of an “inclusive” Indo-Pacific and made no mention of the Quad in his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue (in June 2018 in Singapore).
No discourse on the region’s strategic affairs is complete without considering the idea or principle of ASEAN centrality. With China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, especially since 2012, ASEAN unity and harmony have been damaged, thereby raising questions about its centrality in East Asian affairs. Despite the setback it suffered, ASEAN is appreciative at all levels, of India’s firm commitment to support and advance the cause of ASEAN centrality.
The logic of this approach, according to Indonesian officials and scholars alike, is that all ASEAN member-states and their dialogue partners, such as India, should reinforce the work of ASEAN-related institutions, especially the East Asia Summit (EAS). Enthusiasts of EAS, however, forget that this platform has failed so far to manage and moderate China’s behaviour, and this is the reason why the Indo-Pacific region is compelled to search for other strategic options.
On the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the plain signal given by ASEAN through multiple channels is that the continuing delay in concluding an agreement is due to India. It is time for her to decide – or else the RCEP train may depart without her. Many in India think that ASEAN is bluffing, for without India, RCEP may not amount to much. But, others recognise that India’s exclusion from RCEP will be a major blow to its Act East Policy.
Discerning experts may, therefore, argue that both ASEAN and India should show ample flexibility – even if tempered by low ambition – in the current negotiations. This alone will ensure a fair and balanced outcome. Without the top political leadership throwing its weight behind a prudent line, a positive outcome by end-2018 may be unlikely.
Intra-ASEAN equations too bear watching carefully. Singapore gets a disproportionate amount of attention, punching far above its weight. But, at least in political terms, this could change. The return of a veteran in Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, is a new factor. Will he claim a leadership role, given his differences with Singapore and an inclination to do business with China? Indonesia, under President Joko Widodo, has been far more active in the foreign policy domain than in previous years. PM Modi’s visit to Jakarta produced substantive agreements. Will the two leaders, facing elections in less than a year, have the will and stamina to supervise the implementation of those agreements?
Thailand, which is getting ready to take over next month as the country coordinator for ASEAN’s relations with India, will certainly assert itself and become the lead player. It is already articulating its interest in deepening the strategic partnership between India and ASEAN and urging India to assist in bringing “a strategic equilibrium” in the region. Yet, its proximity to China is an open secret.
The Act East Policy and India’s relationship with ASEAN nations at all three levels – bilateral, sub-regional and regional – will continue to pass through a fascinating, complex stage in the coming year. The policy is doing well, but it should perform better if the convergence of interests with ASEAN is consolidated further, and if India could deliver faster on its commitments.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former Ambassador to Myanmar.
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 The author gratefully acknowledges the sponsorship of the study tour by Kalinga International Foundation (KIF), an institutional partner of Gateway House, which is chaired by Ambassador Lalit Mansingh, former foreign secretary. This essay reflects the author’s personal views.