NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Singapore starting Thursday (May 31).
He will be delivering the keynote address at the Shangri La Dialogue on Friday (Jun 1), where many observers expect him to speak about security in the Indo-Pacific region and India’s role in a world undergoing geopolitical flux.
Modi’s visit to the region, which includes visits to Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, is important from three perspectives. First, the expansion of India’s strategic outreach. Second, China’s assertive stance in the region and third, the role and viability of the Indo-Pacific concept in the emerging strategic context.
Modi’s visit to three Southeast Asian countries comes at an inflexion point for India, on the back of his meetings with major world powers China, Russia and France in recent months and in a year marking 25 years of India-ASEAN relations.
The first Indian Prime Minister to speak at the dialogue since its inception in 2002, many expect him to outline India’s perspective on peace and security in the region, and what steps India intends to safeguard its strategic interests.
Where his audience will comprise policymakers, particularly defence ministers and senior officials from around the region, many also expect him to outline how India sees the regional security architecture evolving to foster greater dialogue and address emerging challenges.
This includes the role India intends to play in platforms like the ASEAN-India Summit, the East Asian Forum, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus.
Southeast Asia has been receiving special focus from Indian policymakers in recent times. Though India and Southeast Asia share centuries of cultural connections, economic and strategic engagements gained momentum only in the post-Cold War period.
India’s Look East Policy, launched in 1992, and the Act East Policy, launched in 2014 were efforts by the Indian government towards greater engagement with the region.
The Look East Policy was intended to increase India’s economic engagements and deepen its economic linkages with the region, while the Act East Policy intended to reinvigorate India’s diplomacy with the region by adding a strategic dimension to India-Southeast Asia relations.
DEEPENING STRATEGIC ENGAGEMENT, FOCUSING ON MARITIME SECURITY
India’s strategic engagement with Southeast Asia has its share of challenges.
India’s foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific has been lukewarm and unfocussed, dogged by the Indian government’s inward looking focus on domestic issues, and as reflected in decades of a foreign policy orientation of non-alignment.
It has stayed engaged in its relations with major powers and to the extent that it engages Southeast Asia, it is primarily through ASEAN-led multilateral forums.
Going forward, however, many expect India to move beyond its strong political ties with countries in the region to foster a strategically active foreign policy that is action-oriented.
A key component of India’s Act East policy has been its maritime engagements with the region, a new area for India where its foreign policy outlook has been described as continental in nature.
Border disputes with Pakistan and China has led India to concentrate on territorial security rather than in expanding its interactions with other countries in the maritime domain.
Apart from a larger presence by the Indian Navy through deployments in key sea lanes of communication through the South China Sea and the Malacca and Singapore Straits, it has also participated in various bilateral and multilateral exercises and regional capacity building initiatives.
Then there is the China factor.
Coming on the back of a wildly successful Modi-Xi meeting at Wuhan, China, which has been portrayed as a major breakthrough in India-China relations and lauded as a milestone allowing both sides to maintain warm atmospherics at the highest levels of government, Indian media and analysts did not share this enthusiasm.
Many felt vindicated when the Chinese started mining near the disputed Arunachal Pradesh border.
While India and China are expanding their bilateral, multilateral and economic engagements, irritants in the relationship between both countries will persist – including India’s hesitance to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) because of sovereignty concerns and China's assertive actions in the Indian Ocean. It will remain a challenge for both sides to keep relations on an even keel.
For these reasons, many observers will be waiting to hear what Modi says about India-China relations.
THE INDO-PACIFIC FACTOR
Since US President Donald Trump’s visit to Asia last November, there has been renewed interest in the construct of an Indo Pacific region, of a maritime region with Asia at its heart and a recognition that its international sea lanes are vital to the regional political economy.
Where it has coincided with the revival of a quadrilateral grouping involving the US, Australia, Japan and India, and has been perceived a strategy to counter China, the objectives of the Quad are still to be worked out.
So many might expect Modi to drop some subtle hints of how India sees its role in the Quad and in the Indo-Pacific more broadly, and how India expects the Quad to evolve.
Many expect Modi take a more nuanced view to discuss how it intersects with a regional security architecture that is primarily ASEAN centric. Where security imperatives and realities of the region might harden a Quad grouping, many also hope to hear how India intends to enhance security of its interests in Indian Ocean.
India is mindful of the interests of regional and extra-regional powers. While China occupies a major part of India’s foreign and security policy, India maintains that it charts a foreign policy direction that is not solely dictated by its interests vis-à-vis China.
Instead, India likely intends to shape a peaceful multi-polar order in a manner that facilitates countries’ continued growth and prosperity through trade, economic linkages and open sea lanes of communication.
In this context, India has always advocated a rules-based order and freedom of navigation and Modi is likely to say so.
For all these reasons, Modi’s opening at the Shangri-La Dialogue will be closely watched. Where India has significant economic links and growing strategic interests in the Asia Pacific, however, India needs to step up its engagement of the region to play an active role in shaping regional developments and cooperation.
Niranjan Marjani is an independent researcher and columnist based in Vadodara, India.