The foresight of reformist and former Prime Minister Narashima Rao, projecting India and ASEAN cooperation a dynamic economic zone, is tending to be in reality. He launched Look East policy , focusing synergy of India’s growth linking to Asian’s spur in growth. His Look East policy became pivot to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Act Asia policy, which pitched for a strong and long term vision to rein political and economic clout in Asia. This resulted engagement of India and ASEAN in strategic partnership, extending the cooperation in defence and security from trade and investment.
Though at the surface level, the aim to invite ASEAN leaders in the most auspicious event on Republic Day celebration , is to commemorate 25 years of partnership, the real aim is to dig at China’s aggressive postures in South China sea and its flexing economic and political muscles through BRI ( Belt and Road Initiative). So far, never so large number of Heads of the nations were invited together to be the chief guests at Republic Day celebration – the most honorable occasion of the country.
Given the shared maritime and landed boundaries, the deepening of the cooperation will pave the way for India- ASEAN connectivity and will unsure India’s greater role for diluting security concern in the region, , besides expanding economic cooperation. Correspondingly, acceptance of the invitation by ASEAN leaders underlines the regional block’s yarn for India’s support after the South China sea conflict erupted. In a way, the connectivity will turn a political slugfest against China’s predatory in grabbing Asian power.
New Delhi will be holding 25 years Commemorative Summit before the Republic Day celebration. In the summit, Mr Modi will give updates of some of the construction activities under way for the connectivity. Viewed from the close lenses, these activities may pose a challenge to China’s assertiveness for Asian power. For example, India- Thailand – Myanmar trilateral highway and its extension to Laos and Cambodia exemplify the intension of challenging China’s BRI (Belt and Road initiative). High priorities will be given for the connectivity in road and river and their financial stakes, according to Minister for Road and Transport, Nitin Gadkari.
Other cases of the connectivity, which may challenge China’s economic outreaches, are India’s proposed Line of Credit of US $500 billion for projects that support physical and digital connectivity between India and ASEAN. India has set up a Project Development Fund of US $ 77 million to create manufacturing hubs in CLMV countries ( Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) and ASEAN-India air connectivity will be optimized , according to Mr Gadkari.
Besides connectivity, maritime cooperation, which has become the backbone for India-ASEAN strategic partnership, may act instrumental to reduce tensions in South China sea. Both have agreed to establish a Maritime Transport Working Group between India and Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia to examine the feasibility of shipping networks, maintain their stakes and safeguard their interests in the region.
To this end, Vietnam will be the linchpin in the ASEAN leaders visits in Republic Day celebration. The visit of Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang , back to back visit after the visit of Prime Minster Modi to Vietnam in September 2016, will unleash a significant momentum in the relation. Mr Modi’s visit to Vietnam after 15 years of an Indian Prime Minister’ visit to that country and particularly after the outbreak of dispute in South China sea, hold paramount importance for India to play a new role in the region. China defied arbitration by UNCLS (UN Convention on Law of Sea) against its claim for sovereignty in the water. In South China sea water, both India and Vietnam’s interests are involved. In this perspective, China’s defiance has become a major security concern.
For India, the major concern is that half of its international trade passes through South China sea. The sea water turn volatile for India’s trade transit in the wake of disputes between Vietnam and China with their maritime rights. In addition to trade , India’s oil interests in the South China sea is in doldrums due to disputes. With the China’s defiance, India is at loggerheads with its off-shore oil drilling in Vietnam territorial water in the sea. In 2006, ONGC of India was awarded two oil blocks in Vietnam territorial water. One of them was relinquished by ONGC. The remaining one block (Block 128) is caught in dispute after China claimed its sovereignty.
Nevertheless, even though China is the biggest trade partner of Vietnam , it could not make a dent in the preference list of Vietnamese. India is much above China in the Vietnamese choices, despite the economic relations between the two countries is at low ebb and the country is ruled by communist regime ( Communist Party of Vietnam).
Modi’s visit to Vietnam after the UN arbitration, raised hope for Vietnam to strengthen its arm to put pressure on China . Vietnam did not put direct pressure on Beijing , fearing China’s political and military clout. It was sending its concerns through mustering the support of other powerful countries opposing the Chinese defiance . India is one of them.
To this end, Modi’s commitment for US $ 500 million credit to Vietnam for procurement of defence equipment and implementation of India- Vietnam Defence Relations of May 2015, underscored India’s role as a big brother in South East Asia against Chinese aggressive postures. The ten year old strategic partnership between India and Vietnam was ramped up to Comprehensive Strategic partnership engagement, unleashing deeper meaning of all round cooperation between the two countries.
In economic front, Singapore – one of the key members of ASEAN – has become the second biggest foreign investor, leaving behind major investors like USA , Japan, Netherland and Germany . This reflects a simmering success of Act Asia policy in fostering economic engagement between India and ASEAN. During the three years period of Modi government, foreign investment acted a prime role in boosting investment in the wake of languishing domestic investment. In this perspective, extending red carpet to ASEAN leaders in Republic Day will pose a big challenge to China in reining economic and political clout in Asia.