Act East: Jaishankar’s three-nation Southeast Asia tour - Hindustan Times

Act East: Jaishankar’s three-nation Southeast Asia tour

ByRahul Mishra
Mar 23, 2024 10:58 AM IST

This article is authored by Rahul Mishra.

As external affairs minister S Jaishankar embarks on a three-nation tour to Southeast Asia - Singapore, the Philippines, and Malaysia - from March 23 to 27 - India seems to be gearing up to commemorate ten years of the launch of its Act East policy in 2014.

Union External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar (PTI) PREMIUM
Union External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar (PTI)

During his five-day whirlwind tour, Jaishankar will try to maximise the diplomatic footwork to take India’s ties with its Southeast Asian partners to new heights – a task easier said than done as it requires distinct focus in each of these Southeast Asian countries. This is because India’s ties with Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Manila are at different levels in terms of cooperation agenda and the relationship trajectory.

Singapore has been a long-standing partner of India. From then prime minister (PM) Goh Chok Tong’s India visit in 1994 to start a ‘mild India fever’ to contemporary times, the bilateral relationship has come a long way. It was Singapore that played a key role in socialising India in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) region by supporting India’s candidature at ASEAN-led multilateral platforms. Singapore is one of India’s most trusted partners in the region on trade, commerce, investments, defence and security partnerships, and big-ticket strategic items. It has served as India’s gateway to ASEAN.

However, the cancellation of the Amravati project has introduced a sour note into India-Singapore ties. While it serves well to let Indian states play their due role in Indian foreign policymaking, such a role should be constructive and not put India’s foreign relations in jeopardy. It may be recalled that in 2019, Andhra Pradesh cancelled its agreement with Singapore developers to build the capital city Amaravati.

In contrast with Singapore, India’s ties with the Philippines are yet to optimally utilise their potential. However, recent developments on India-Philippines trade and commerce as well as on the defence and strategic front have been encouraging. India and the Philippines signed a defence agreement in January 2022, as part of which India will supply the shore-based anti-ship variant of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile to the Philippines. India has also offered to supply Tejas Mk1 to the Philippines. As India and the Philippines celebrate 75 years of their partnership, it would also be timely if their bilateral relationship is graduated to that of a strategic partnership level.

Malaysia is one of the four ASEAN member countries with which India has signed strategic partnership agreements. The other three countries are Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam.

The shift from a strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2015 during PM Narendra Modi’s Malaysia visit showcased how much importance India attaches to Malaysia as a part of its Act East policy. Even though the bilateral relationship has seen ups and downs in the recent years, it is remarkable to note how earnestly and sincerely the foreign policy mandarins in Delhi and Kuala Lumpur have managed to deal with unexpected challenges and keep the relationship warm and meaningful.

Malaysia also boasts one of the world's largest Indian diasporas, playing a vital role in fostering economic ties and cultural interactions between the nations. Approximately 2.77 million individuals of Indian heritage make up around 8.5% of Malaysia's population. Moreover, Malaysia is home to about 140,000 Indian immigrants, including professionals and workers across various sectors. The reciprocal flow of tourists has significantly strengthened people-to-people connections between the two countries.

While trade, commerce, and investment ties between the two countries have been growing, defence cooperation is also reaching new heights. India and Malaysia are also exchanging ideas about possible defence imports from India while also exploring new avenues of defence cooperation. With almost $ 20 billion bilateral trade in 2022-2023, the two countries are working to cross a $ 25 billion mark by 2026.

As Malaysia is gearing up to assume the ASEAN chair in 2025, it is important for both the countries to deliberate upon their visions for the Indo-Pacific region. India's role in shaping the Indo-Pacific regional order is growing.

India’s commitment to keep the Indo-Pacific region inclusive, peaceful, rule-based, and open, is in synch with ASEAN’s AOIP (ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific). India’s IPOI (Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative) and SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) initiatives have consolidated India’s image as a responsible stakeholder and a net security provider in the region. India’s unwavering commitment to ASEAN norms and principles gels well with ASEAN’s collective vision and priorities including their collective stance against superpower rivalries in the region.

There is a strong realisation in ASEAN capitals that challenges faced by them are getting increasingly similar to those faced by India and some of their other dialogue partners.

It is in the interest of both India and ASEAN to ensure that meaningful and effective measures are taken to ensure that ASEAN remains a central force in mediating the South China Sea dispute. They must do so to ensure that the Indo-Pacific region remains a fine example of a rules-based, peaceful, inclusive, open, and prosperous region, away from ill-effects of predominance of China or the binaries of a US-China competition.

This article is authored by Rahul Mishra, senior research fellow, German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance, Thammasat University, Thailand, and associate professor, Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Continue reading with HT Premium Subscription

Daily E Paper I Premium Articles I Brunch E Magazine I Daily Infographics
Share this article
Story Saved
Live Score
Saved Articles
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Monday, June 17, 2024
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Follow Us On