As Washington’s influence in the region wanes and the China factor increases, New Delhi needs to build lasting strategic and economic ties with Southeast Asia, write Tridivesh Singh Maini and Maithili Parikh. 

Over the past decade India has invested immensely in strengthening its economic and strategic ties with Southeast Asia, Japan and South Korea.

The Narendra Modi government has sought to consolidate relations with Southeast Asia and Japan while Washington has supported a greater role for New Delhi in the Indo-Pacific region.

While accused of neglecting India in his first term, President Obama has invested significant capital in strengthening the two nations’ strategic partnership and has managed to find common ground with India’s Act East Policy – which focuses on improving relations with ASEAN and East Asian countries.

In the strategic sphere, this includes the Malabar exercises – joint naval operations involving the US and Japan.

And in August, New Delhi signed the long-awaited bilateral military logistics exchange agreement (LEMOA) with the US – even though it has been criticised by some strategic analysts for favouring Washington. The agreement was first proposed by the previous Manmohan Singh government, but due to opposition from within the Congress party was scuttled.

It is also important to note that Washington has supported a greater role for India in the India-Pacific region as an economic player, calling on New Delhi to help enhance connectivity between India and Southeast Asia through the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor, which will link the country with Southeast Asia through Myanmar and Bangladesh.

India too has realised the benefits of stronger connectivity with ASEAN countries beginning with Myanmar. During Myanmar President U Htin Kyaw’s visit to New Delhi in August, among the important issued addressed was speeding up the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway. And during the India-ASEAN dialogue, Indian PM Narendra Modi spoke of the need of setting up of a joint task force to extend this corridor to Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.

But changing dynamics within ASEAN also means India needs to carefully monitor developments in the region.

New Delhi, while strengthening its strategic ties with the US, should closely watch recent events in ASEAN that may have reduced Washington’s leverage and strengthened China’s position in Southeast Asia. Beijing is heavily invested economically in the region. But, certain developments have also given it leeway in the strategic sphere.

First, the anti-US posturing of Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte could have serious ramifications. The President recently stated that the 4 October military exercises with the United States would be the last.

“You are scheduled to hold war games again which China does not want. I will serve notice to you now; this will be the last military exercise,” he warned in the lead up to the maneuvers.

Perfecto Yasay Jr, Duterte’s foreign secretary, denied this. Time will tell whether the military exercises are cancelled on or not. But Duterte’s strong words represent a shift. It could also be that he is just playing the US against China, using this as a means to encourage greater Chinese investment in the Philippines.

Another key player is Vietnam.

While Vietnam and China have suffered through recent tensions, particularly over the South China Sea, India has sought to strengthen strategic ties with Hanoi – including a US $500 million defence credit offered during the Modi’s visit to Vietnam in the first week of September. From this, US$ 100 million would be used for building patrol boats. It was also decided that India would further increase assistance with military training.

Less than two weeks after a successful visit by Modi, President Xi visited Vietnam and spoke about the importance of the bilateral relationship. And despite tensions between both countries, business between the two is booming, with bilateral trade estimated at over US$ 65 billion.

While on trade deals, the TPP is another factor that could temper India’s ASEAN ambitions.

The US has not been able to push through President Obama’s brainchild, who acknowledged the opposition to the proposed agreement during a press conference on 2 August.

There’s a real problem, but the answer is not cutting off globalisation. The answer is how do we make sure that globalisation, technology, automation—those things work for us, not against us. TPP is designed to do precisely that.

And in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in March, Singaporean PM Lee Hsien Loong alluded to the possible lowering of US influence in ASEAN if the agreement does not go through.

I think it is important you do ratify this and not either let it stand for years unsettled or, worse, at some point, say ‘We are not satisfied, let us come back. I am asking for an even better deal’ because that would considerably undermine American credibility and seriousness of purpose, and confidence in America all over the region.

If Washington’s leverage were to reduce, what does New Delhi do?

First, India should continue to woo Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam — countries which for too long were on the margins of ASEAN, but today are drivers of growth and major economic players.

Apart from India’s pro-active economic and strategic outreach to these countries, it is important that India focuses on strengthening connectivity and trade ties. Projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway need to be accelerated; extending it to Cambodia and Vietnam will help in strengthening India’s Act East Policy, as well as bolster projects like the Indo-Pacific Economic Corridor.

Second, while India may be no match for China regarding investment and bilateral trade, India should build on its strengths in areas like capacity building and in helping establish an efficient private sector. While India has been assisting Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam in IT, English language training and agriculture, it should increase the number of scholarships for students from these countries. There is also need to enhance people-to-people contact and build on historical links.

Third, India needs to strengthen ties with countries like Indonesia and Thailand. Where there is a considerable amount of goodwill, this has not been converted into closer ties in the strategic and economic sphere. While Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam have been given high priority, there is a dire need to strengthen ties with Bangkok and Jakarta. There is a need for greater involvement of the political leadership in the same.

India has clear strengths in ASEAN, and while finding common ground in the Indo-Pacific is one aspect of the Act  East Policy, the current government needs to create its own niche and play to its abilities without being unduly obsessed by the China factor.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonipat. One of his areas of interest is India’s Act East Policy.

Maithili Parikh is a student at The Government Law College Mumbai.