By Harsh V. Pant
The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, was in Southeast Asia recently, visiting Malaysia and Singapore at a time of great regional turbulence. Modi attended the ASEAN-India Summit and the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur with an aim of not only increasing political, security and economic cooperation between India and Southeast Asian countries but also to raise India's profile in an increasingly important part of the world. Making a direct reference to the South China Sea dispute at the ASEAN-India Summit, Modi took aim at China when he said "India hopes that all parties to the disputes in the South China Sea will abide by the guidelines on the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and redouble efforts for early adoption of a Code of Conduct on the basis of consensus."
At the bilateral level, India and Malaysia pledged to increase cooperation on a range of defence and security issues, including maritime security, disaster response and cyber security. Modi and his Malaysian counterpart, Najib Razak, made combating terrorism a top priority in Indo-Malaysian ties. Modi praised Razak for his role in combating extremism and radicalization in Malaysia. India's soft power was also in the mix with Modi highlighting the cultural ties between India with Malaysia as he inaugurated a 'Torana Gate', a traditional gateway to Hindu and Buddhist temples, along with the Malaysian prime minister.
The Indian prime minister went to Singapore from Malaysia to commemorate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between India and Singapore. Singapore is the second-largest source of foreign direct investment in India, and it is India's 10th-largest trading partner. It was not surprising to see Modi reaching out to investors in Singapore, emphasizing his government's economic reforms and underlining to an audience of business representatives from over 300 companies that India's reforms have "successfully restored the credibility of India in the eyes of global players". Modi projected India as "the most open economy in terms of FDI." Among the many bilateral pacts that were signed with Singapore during Modi's visit, the most significant was the India-Singapore Strategic Partnership Agreement, which is aimed at broadening and deepening ties across various sectors, including defence, economics and capacity building.
In Malaysia and Singapore, Modi addressed Indian expatriates and rallied them with his call for a greater Indian profile in global affairs, a message he has often repeated in front of similar crowds during other foreign visits. Indians make up the third-largest ethnic group in the city-state, after Chinese and Malay ethnic groups. Of Malaysia's total population of nearly 30 million, two million people are of Indian origin.
While trade and investment remain central to India's outreach to Southeast Asia, the larger strategic context should not get lost as India engages with the region. New Delhi, which so often likes to sit on margins and avoid taking sides, must assume it can no longer afford the luxury of inaction if it wants to preserve credibility as a significant actor in both East and Southeast Asia. New Delhi has an ambition to expand its footprint in the region, which has so far been viewed as outside India's core interests. At a time when China's bullying behaviour has been evident in its actions and pronouncements, India should be doing more to signal that it is ready to emerge as a serious balancer in the region. The regional states have often complained about Indian diffidence and its lack of seriousness. The Narendra Modi government is more serious than its predecessor, even though it remains far from clear whether it is well prepared to challenge China on its own turf.
India is wading into the South China Sea dispute between China and its neighbours by not only calling for "freedom of navigation in international waters, the right of passage and overflight, unimpeded commerce and access to resources in accordance with recognized principles of international law including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea" but also agreeing to cooperate with the United States of America in "safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea." Presenting a contrast to China's aggressive policies in South China Sea, India is also showcasing its own maritime dispute with Bangladesh, which it successfully resolved through international arbitration, as an example worth following in the region. Recently, in its joint statement with the Philippines, India referred to the South China Sea as West Philippine Sea, a term which Manila has been using since the escalation of its maritime dispute with China. Defence cooperation is soaring with regional countries ranging from Japan, Vietnam, Philippines and Singapore to extra-regional powers such as the US and the United Kingdom.
With his recent visits, Modi has succeeded in enhancing strategic partnerships with Malaysia and Singapore but New Delhi needs to engage with the region more substantively. New Delhi needs to assure the regional states of its reliability not only as an economic and political partner but also as a security provider. As the regional balance of power in Asia changes and as the very coherence of the ASEAN comes under question, there will be new demands on India. The rapid rise of China in Asia and beyond is the main pivot even as New Delhi seeks to expand economic integration and interdependence with the region. India is also developing strong security linkages with the region and is trying to actively promote, and participate in, regional and multilateral initiatives. States in the region are now looking to India not only as an attractive engine for regional growth but also as a balancer in view of China's growing influence and America's preoccupations elsewhere. It remains to be seen if India can indeed live up to its full potential as well as to the region's expectations.
The author is Professor of International Relations, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College, London
The Telegraph, December 19, 2015