By Anjana George

Edited by Namrata Caleb, Senior Editor. The Indian Economist

Close cultural interaction of India with Southeast Asia began from prehistoric times and continued until the beginning of colonial rule. India’s relations with Southeast Asia passed through many obstacles, and in the new millennium, India has been trying its best to be a major power in the region with its ‘Look East’ policy.

Act East and not just ‘Look East’ is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mantra as he seeks to translate declarations and promises into action to elevate India’s partnership with South-East and East Asia to the next level. With geographical proximity, cultural linkages and post-colonial ambitions, India is considered a benign power by most South-east Asian countries.

India’s size, population, educated middle class, industrial base, military strength, technical capability, ancient cultural relations with Southeast Asia, and presence of non-resident Indians (NRIs) are factors in India’s favor. New Delhi’s neglect of the region from late 1960s, and the low priority accorded to it by the non-Indochinese countries of Southeast Asia changed after the end of cold war. Both are looking at each other in a positive light.

The appeal to India to expand its footprint in the region grew stronger with China’s bolstered ambitions of late, especially with regard to claims and actions in the South China Sea. Beijing has not only challenged the freedom of navigation in the region but it has also opposed oil exploration by India and others in Vietnam’s territorial waters in what it claims as Chinese territory. China has now become a little apprehensive with India after the latter showed proximity with the Vietnamese. The frequent bickering along territorial borders has not been kindly looked upon by both parties, but in challenging a nation like China India has shown its willingness to be the contemporary world power.

While the UPA government pursued a consistent ‘Look East’ policy, it dithered and gave mixed signals- the withdrawal from one of the oil blocks in Vietnam being a case in point. In contrast, Sushma Swaraj has visited the region three times in the last six months since becoming foreign minister- Mayanmar, followed by Singapore and then Vietnam. President Pranab Mukherjee visited Vietnam when the long pending MoU for extending the line of credit of $100 million to Hanoi for defense purchases was signed.

And Vietnam’s PM Nguyen Tan Dung became the first leader from Southeast Asia whom India hosted little over a month after Mukherjee’s visit, signaling that Delhi intends to walk the talk in expanding the strategic partnership. Notwithstanding the Chinese pressure, Vietnam and India signed seven agreements, which included two pacts in oil exploration.

Besides Vietnam, Singapore is another key pillar of India’s ASEAN policy. The city-state sent it’s foreign and defense ministers to Delhi days after the Modi government took charge. Defense is one area where Singapore is keen to ramp cooperation beyond joint exercises and training. The new vistas would include defense hardware purchases, joint production and greater sharing of information on security challenges. Strong Singapore-Indian ties have during the years helped share mutual resources in technology, medicine, etc and most probably, Indian authorities will care to adopt a few political corruption eradicating measures that the country follows.

Indonesia has quietly stepped up its economic engagement with India, particularly in the natural resources sector. Malaysia has been seeking more attention from India and the Philippines remains a neglected state for New Delhi. The newly signed free-trade agreement with the ASEAN, however, is also expected to increase India’s trade with the region. With stability in the South China Sea region high on the agenda at the ASEAN and East Asia Summits next week, all eyes will be on Modi on his commitment to step up India’s presence in the region.

Governments have long tried to improve foreign ties, as have they sometimes taken the wrong steps that have dwindled foreign relationships. The world has witnessed the growth of nations within the Southeast Asian region and India will surely look to grow as a major power and also build better relations with all its Asian counterparts.

Anjana George is a second year student pursuing Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) from Christ University, Bangalore. She believes in the power of words and their magic to entwine people in thought and understanding. Her subjects of interest include politics, spirituality, architecture and movies among others. She is an avid reader and takes keen interest in writing, storytelling and photography. She aspires to be able to know people, places and lives and share her knowledge of experience with others. She can be contacted at the following email address- anjanageorge9686@gmail.com.

Posted by The Indian Economist | For the Curious Mind