The Sunday Leader

Modi’s ASEAN outreach: Will it succeed?

By Vidyadharan MP

India this year had 10 top leaders from the ASEAN watching the Republic Day from the podium with prime minister Narendra Modi. This was for the first time in her history that so many persons were invited as the chief guests at this prestigious event on January 26. This idea too seemed to have originated from none other than prime minister Narendra Modi.

Ever since he was elected to power in New Delhi in 2014, Modi has been experiencing out of the box ideas to improve relations with all the countries. He began this with his swearing-in ceremony itself, when he invited all the leaders of the SAARC countries to the function. The political as well as strategic experts were stunned by the idea, mooted and practised by Modi. Most leaders turned up, including Sri Lanka’s then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharief. Initially, there was doubts whether Nawaz Sharief would take part in the event as he needed consent from the Army as well. But finally he did. Modi utilised the occasion having a one-to-one with all the leaders, trying to begin his innings on a clean slate. He had a very cordial meeting with Rajapaksa too.

Being the chief minister of Gujarat for quite a long time, Modi had definite advantages as he had good relations with many of the world leaders – except that of America, which had refused to give him visa to visit the US, due to human rights issues following the 2002 Gujarat riots. Modi had good relations with the Chinese leaders, Japanese premier Shinzo Abe, Israeli leaders, European leaders, etc. A shrewd and decisive politician, Modi began using these relations to improve India’s ties with them and bring in FDI which is very critical for economic development.

However, despite Modi’s best efforts, two important cases, as far as India’s foreign policy is concerned, did not succeed. One was China, which too was eager to improve its ties with India which is a huge market for Chinese goods. Chinese president Xi Jinping gave Modi a wonderful welcome in Beijing. Modi too planned an equally warm welcome in India – in Delhi and Gujarat. However, Chinese army’s boundary trespassing during the visit spoilt all the warmth, though Xi assured Modi that his army would withdraw as well as that he would enquire why and how it happened. But this incident created doubts in Modi’s minds about the dependability on China.

When Modi and Xi were trying to improve tries and build confidence, the US were worrying now what will happen to the Indo-US ties which had seem tremendous improvement from the time of the first BJP PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, followed by Manmohan Singh. And the boundary violations by the Chinese army came as a boon to President Barrack Obama who then fascinated Modi. Obama and Modi became so close that the US president was invited to the Republic Day for the first time as the chief guest. Thereater, Modi and Obama had numerous meetings. Obama was the only president to visit India more than once.

In fact, if the Chinese army’s intrusions did not take place during the summit of Xi-Modi in New Delhi, may be India’s foreign policy could have different directions today. And world could have seen a much more united East. Anyway, that was not to be and today we see both India and China, in two camps, trying to increase their influence in the world, especially in Asia.

From time memorial, Indian emperors, scholars and preachers had great influence in the region. The Indian influence can be found in all the south eastern Asian countries as well as other nations which are now part of the ASEAN. India’s cultural bonds with these nations were very old and strong.

PM Modi is of the view that we should make use of these old bonds which can help give better handle to move with these nations. Some countries in this grouping also have territorial issues with China. Only two countries of the ASEAN, Laos and Cambodia,  seem to be completely comfortable with China while others are suspicious of the Chinese moves.

So, it was no surprise that India invited the leaders from this group to be the chief guests at the Republic Day as well as to attend the commemorative meeting of the ASEAN held in Delhi. In fact, Modi had converted India’s Look East foreign policy into Act East, trying to focus on the North East region of India and make use of the economic potential of the entire region.

As of now ASEAN is India’s fourth largest trading partner; India is ASEAN’s seventh. It is also a major destination for outbound investments, with some 20 per cent going to ASEAN, mainly Singapore, with whom India has its deepest ties.

ASEAN has been China’s third largest trading partner for the past six years and China has been the ASEAN’s biggest trade partner for the past eight years in a row. More important, many Chinese companies are linked to ASEAN production centres through global value chains.

India, of course, also has an important trade and investment agenda in the ASEAN region. But given its larger ambitions, it needs to draw in ASEAN into its connectivity plans. But it has not been able to do its bit, for example, in developing the Trilateral Highway, that would link India’s north-east with Myanmar, Thailand and onwards to Malayaia.  But these plans  include not just the developments of ports and roads, but also procedures and agreement for the smooth movement of goods and services. The Japan-India sponsored Asia Africa Growth Corridor will have a meaning only if the ASEAN acts as its eastern anchor.

ASEAN is also interested in connectivity and there are many areas that can be fruitfully explored, including the linkages of India’s east coast ports – Haldia, Paradip, Vizag and Chennai with ASEAN destinations.

And, these connectivity efforts can be translated into an alternate commercial route to what is being developed by China in the name of OBOR or One Belt One Road initiative. In the efforts to build this commercial route, China had been approaching all the small countries around India with the offer of financial assistance to develop the ports and roads.

The Chinese economic assistance is turning into huge debt trap for many countries, which then are forced to allow these facilities to be used by the Chinese military.

Can India offer an alternative – of development of ports, infrastructure which can bring prosperity to all, with necessary economic assistance. Can international institutions like the World Bank and IMF can provide the economic muscle needed for creating such an alternative to the Chinese model? Can Modi give leadership to such a project, which is in the interest of the US, West, and their other allies?

Modi’s efforts seems to be to woo the ASEAN more to New Delhi’s side. Majority of its members are not happy with the aggressive and arbitrary attitude of China. Some of its members are worried about their territorial security. In such a situation, India can easily build up a very fruitful relationship with the ASEAN.

However, the success of any idea lies in perfect and detailed implementation. And Modi has not been so lucky in this, at least as far as neighbourhood policy was concerned. His idea on invigorating the SAARC with his surprise invitations to the swearing-in ceremony did not lead to much success. While Pakistan was always a problem state as far as India’s policy is concerned, the failure with that country was not unexpected. Then India tried to shift its focus to BIMSTEC group, calling its leaders to the Goa BRICS Summit. The efforts to improve connectivity through this group with a transport agreement have alsonot materialised with Bhutan refusing to implement it after putting signature to it.

Surprisingly, even with countries like Sri Lanka, Nepal and Maldives, India’s relations did not improve much. In Sri Lanka’s case, it even nosedived, with Rajapaksa accusing India of working against him during the general elections.

Which direction will Modi’s  efforts on improving relations with the ASEAN move? Will it yield the desired results? Only time well tell. But one thing is sure. He may need to work harder in the specifics with regard to each country, if India is keen to offer an alternative to the Chinese model.

(The author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi and Additional Director (Communications) of Observer Research Foundation).

1 Comment for “Modi’s ASEAN outreach: Will it succeed?”

  1. mr modi is a thumping blook for srilankan ,he promised to introduced the 13 th am emend, but fail, it is his politics ,. is a week prime minister for indian government,

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