Eastward, Ho!: 10 ASEAN leaders invited to the Republic Day spectacular marks the futuristic 21st century boost the “Act East” policy gives to India

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PM Narendra Modi attends 14th ASEAN-India summit at Vientiane, Laos.

That 10 leaders of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) occupy seats on the rostrum as the parade of India’s cultural and economic diversity, and military might passes by with music and color on New Delhi’s Rajpath this Republic Day this Jan. 26, is a testament to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy’s ambitious agenda of building bridges across the oceans.

Their presence also signals the measure of India’s economic growth and the resulting regional and global importance, recognized in both the East and the West.

The optics of the presidents, prime ministers and a Sultan at the nationally televised Republic Day, marks a “big step forward” for India’s looking East policy, says Sadanand Dhume, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s a gift the Modi administration has of using spectacle in furthering India’s foreign policy,” Dhume told News India Times. This isthe first time South East Asia is being so prominently displayed in India, he says.

The invitation to the 10 ASEAN leaders is not just symbolic, concurrs Anubhav Gupta, assistant director with the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York. It signals a relationship in which ASEAN and India are willing to invest heavily, both politically and diplomatically.

More than a thousand years of history between India and the ASEAN countries is being seemingly infused with new life, geared in this modern and technological age, toward economic, strategic, national security, environment, and connectivity, building on a foundation of historical cultural commonalities.

“ASEAN is central to India’s ‘Act East’ Policy. And, our ties are a source of balance and harmony in the region,” Modi said on Sept. 8, 2016, noting that the engagement was driven not just by shared civilizational heritage, but “also driven by our commonstrategic priorities of securing our societies and bringing peace, stability and prosperity to the region.”

After taking office, Modi took a proactive approach to ASEAN. The country’s search for economic space with the 1990s liberalization resulted in the ‘Look East Policy.’ That policy has today matured into a dynamic and action oriented ‘Act East Policy’ articulated by Modi at the 12th ASEAN India Summit in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar’s new capital, in November, 2014, just months into his administration.

Walking the Talk

While India will not be a member of ASEAN, it is trying to build relations at the institutional level and the individual country level, Dhume notes.

Important change elements in India’s ASEAN relationship had already been jumpstarted by the Modi administration, noted Gupta.

By making the ASEAN policy pro-active, New Delhi stands to reap benefits way beyond the more incremental pace of the past, he said, adding, “The strategy itself is not new but has a new invigorated focus.” For instance, Modi has traveled far more extensively in the region than Indian leaders before him, and with more clearly targeted economic objectives.

“Even though India has for a long time talked about it (engaging Southeast Asia), now it is finally walking the talk,” Gupta said.

India-ASEAN trade and investment relations have been growing steadily, with ASEAN being India’s fourth largest trading partner. Bilateral trade stood at approximately US$ 76.53 billion in 2014-15.

India’s imports from ASEAN are higher by several billions than its exports to the region in recent years, which reality may explain Modi’s focus on the economics of the relationship.

According to an analysis by Pyaralal Raghavan in the Times of India, India’s exports to ASEAN were up significantly in the initial years — $18.1 billion in 2009-10 to $ 33.1 billion in 2013-14. But they fell to $ 25.1 billion in 2015-16. The share of Indian exports to ASEAN rose to as high as 16.9% by 2012-13, but dropped to it has 9.5% by 2015-16. Foreign Direct Investment has also not been in India’s favor, MEA figures show.

Gupta recommends India be even more engaged economically than before, with the region, and promotes APEC, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping, as one of the solutions. The 21-member APEC stretches all the way from Southeast Asia to Peru, taking in seven ASEAN members and major economies including Australia, China, Russia, Japan, Canada and the United States.

Dhume on the other hand, contends APEC is a complex relationship and the more appropriate organization where India can get results is RCEP or the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership of which India is a member. The RCEP also includes all the ASEAN members and Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand and aims at equalizing economic disparities and broadening and deepening engagement in the economic development of the region, the RCEP website states.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets Thailand Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha.

Energizing Diplomacy

Dhume lauded the policy vigor adopted by New Delhi in more recent years.

“Looking toward East Asia is more an example of how the Modi administration has energized Indian diplomacy. It is a symbol of greater ambition. This is a question of trying to do more in this region, not that the West has become less important,” says Dhume.

Modi has ratcheted up this relationship even as President Donald Trump put India front and center in the Asian power equation, renaming the region “Indo-Pacific” from the older “Asia-Pacific” in Washington’s strategy. Washington now wants to develop a quadrilateral alliance in the region with India, Australia and Japan.

A stronger relationship with the U.S. gives India a strong hand to play with ASEAN, because Washington remains the dominant power in Asia, and ASEAN looks to the U.S. for direction.

“If Washington indicates a larger role for India, it strengthens India’s hand,” Dhume opines.

Gupta reverses the equation. India’s current assertiveness vis-a-vis ASEAN, strong positions it has taken even in areas where personal interests are not so directly connected, is a result of its own strong economic growth, Gupta contends.

“India’s more confident and engaged outlook and strong economy has led other countries (including the U.S.), to include it in their strategic equation,” contends Gupta. One outcome is Washington switching terminology in its strategic vision to “Indo Pacific” from “Asia Pacific” changing the frame of reference and “suddenly making India the anchor rather than the peripheral country in the region,” Gupta said. Yet, while India has begun the process, it needs to play a more active role in Asia and South East Asia, and express its own positions and principles as it has begun doing on wanting “open” seas and the rule of law to govern the seas.

All this is transpiring in the backdrop of increasingly aggressive postures adopted by the Chinese leadership in the region, which worry nations of ASEAN and others.

Despite this posturing both in the oceans and on India’s land border, New Delhi’s strong position open oceans and the rule of law, harkens to an independence and strength, an awareness that appeasing China seldom assures a positive outcome, Gupta notes.

Meanwhile, alongside the development of the “Quad” alliance proposed and initiated by the U.S. last year, hovers in the background, and shows a yearning for reviving an idea that appeared to have died in 2007, Gupta says.

ASEAN-India Relationship Built On Measurable Plans Of Action

India’s 25-year relationship with ASEAN, an organization that was founded in 1967, could be counted among its foreign policy successes. Based on concrete five-year “Plan(s) of Action” under the rubric of “Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity,” the latest being the 2016-2020 plan, the relationship covers political and security concerns, economic, socio-cultural cooperation, connectivity and a host of other areas.

India’s relationship with ASEAN dates back to 1992, growing from merely a “sectoral” dialogue to a “full” dialogue partnership in December 1995. The relationship was further elevated with the convening of the ASEAN-India Summit in 2002 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, from when the ASEAN-India Summit has been held annually. “All these tookplace in a decade, which clearly signifies the importance of the dialogue partnership to ASEAN and India and the progress made in the cooperation,” the organization says on its website.

At the 13th ASEAN-India Summit held in Kuala Lumpur in November 2015, the ASEAN leaders welcomed Modi’s “Act East Policy” and noted the initiatives potentially complemented their own efforts.

“Economics is more important than culture for these young economies – looking to build jobs, and interested in trade and manufacturing,” said Sadanand Dhume, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Modi mirrored the goals expressed by ASEAN leaders — economics was his focus as well.

“The substance of our strategic partnership covers all three major segments of ASEAN activities-security, economic and socio-cultural. And, the ASEAN India Plan of Action for the period 2016-2020 has served us well in fulfilling our objectives. We have already implemented 54 out of 130 activities identified in the Plan of Action,” Modi said in his 2016 address to ASEAN leaders.

“Enhancing connectivity in all its dimensions- physical, digital, economic, institutional and cultural-is at the heart of India’s strategic partnership with ASEAN. And, readiness to link our economic success, and share development experiences with ASEAN nations, especially the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam) countries, drives our engagement,” Modi asserted.

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