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External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj has returned from Myanmar after a hectic round of multilateral parleys relating to the future of East Asia and India’s own ‘Look East’ policy. During her visit, Ms Swaraj presided over the Asean-India foreign ministers meeting and attended the annual meet of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), a 27-member body, discussing the future of the region alongside international partners, including the US, Russia and the European Union. Ms Swaraj also attended the East Asian Summit and held bilaterals with foreign ministers of 11 countries, including the host Myanmar. These consultations are important in the light of the delicate balance of power within Asia, particularly relating to China-Japan tensions over disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and Beijing’s territorial claims over the South China Sea that irritate neighbours along its periphery. China sees the South China Sea as its sphere of influence in order to access fishing and energy resources, control sea lanes and anchor its submarine-based nuclear missiles.
India has a difficult balancing act to maintain in East Asia. It wants to strengthen economic links with China while responding to the strategic imperative of improving ties with the region including with countries like Vietnam that look to New Delhi to balance Beijing. India has wisely adopted a non-confrontational approach, quietly consolidating links with South-East Asia. India and Asean have agreed on a range of steps to intensify India’s connections with the region. Both sides have 26 cross-sectoral dialogue mechanisms that meet annually and are now agreeing on a five-year work plan. A free trade agreement (FTA) on services and investment will be concluded soon while connectivity will be a priority area hereon. India, Myanmar and Thailand are to explore a transit agreement and air links between Tier II and Tier III cities in India and business destinations in Asean will be developed. Maritime and railways connections are also on the agenda as India looks to leverage its advantages in space, pharmaceuticals and training to keep the region interested. All this works brilliantly in theory; it is now time to focus on the delivery of agreed objectives.
Ms Swaraj avoided anti-China language but endorsed positions that Asean nations would be happy with, such as calling for the adoption of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, opposing the use or threat of use of force to settle disputes and supporting freedom of navigation and access to resources in accordance with international law. The diplomatic challenge for the Narendra Modi government will be to strengthen links with both China and Asean while persuading all sides not to see this consolidation in zero sum terms. Like Europe, Asian stability depends on how well it becomes interconnected.