As New Delhi hosted the ‘event of the year’ with 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Heads of States joining Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the Asean-India Commemorative Summit, the question doing the rounds among Indian and Asean think-tank and policy-maker circles is: Is India finally ready to challenge China in the latter’s designs to determine the future course of Asean?
Like India, China too is not a member of the group, of course, and yet, both are vying to appear as the preferred partners for this economically and strategically influential group. The modus operandi, however, appears to be different. The Asean countries are watching the moves carefully as they see the two Asian giants trying to engage with them, using all available stratagems. The question that a group of journalists from Asean posed before the Indian experts recently was: Can Indian ingenuity match the Chinese chimera? Can the elephant match the dragon?
They all know, it’s about money and here, India is no match to the Chinese power play. But India brings much more to the table that may make it a preferred partner vis-à-vis China. Respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty are the key words helping evolve India’s relationship with its Asean partners. The game in the Indo-Pacific is taking an interesting turn.
While China is pumping in money into developing nations in the name of infrastructure development, it is also gradually pushing them into a debt trap. Sri Lanka had to surrender its strategic Hambantota Port to the Chinese while Djibouti had to allow them set up military base under debt reduction deals. In Cambodia too, one can witness Chinese money power all over. Foreign policy experts Veasna Var and Sovinda Po wrote in East Asia Forum that China has given about three billion dollar in concessional loans and grants to Cambodia since 1992. They quoted a 2016 International Monetary Fund report that showed that Cambodia’s external multilateral public debt is at $1.6 billion, while its bilateral public debt with China is $3.9 billion – 80 per cent of this is owned by China.
Despite its investments, the fact remains that China continues to give enough headache to Asean nations through territorial disputes and navigational issues in the South China Sea. Philippines in 2013, challenged China’s nine dotted line claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and got a favourable ruling in 2014. The dispute continues as China rejected the UNCLOS ruling. Indonesia, in clear defiance to China’s territorial ambitions, last July, announced demarcation of the northern areas of its Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea by renaming it as North Natuna Sea. Vietnam too has constant ugly spats with Beijing with regard to economic activities in the South China Sea.
While India may not have the kind of money power as Beijing to carry out the kind of massive infrastructure work that China is doing in the Asean countries, but it certainly has the goodwill of the people in the region. India’s development partnership in the Asean nations ranges from agriculture, space, environment, human resource development, capacity building, new and renewable energy, renovation-restoration of heritage sites to tourism and connectivity.
There are specific capacity-building efforts in Vietnam, such as the ‘Space Project’ in Ho Chi Minh City; funding of construction of primary schools and hostels; and an e-learning project for medical training. In Indonesia’s Biak, there is a project for upgradation of Telemetry Tracking and Command Station. In the health sector, there have been joint research on malaria and non-communicable diseases. In education, there are scholarships and exchange programmes for Asean students for higher education at Nalanda University and Indian universities. India is also supporting setting up Centres of Excellence in Software Development and Training, training of English teachers, e-Network for provision of tele-medicine and tele-education and has Quick Impact Projects in CMLV countries.
There is also deep collaboration between India and Asean countries in the field of security and combating terrorism. It is notable that for the first time, a Bruneian ship – KDB Darulaman – ventured out of the South China Sea, to participate in Naval exercise MILAN in 2012 off the Andamans. India also trains professionals, bureaucrats, diplomats and defense personnel in addition to aiding capacity-building in defence. Recently, Prime Minister Modi announced an aid of five million dollar to Philippines towards rebuilding of Marawi, the city that was destroyed due to fighting between the Islamic State and security forces. Apart from bilateral financial aids and lines of credit, within the Asean-India format, India has a commitment of $100 million Asean-India Fund. Plus, there is five million dollar Asean-India Green Fund and another five million dollar of Asean-India Science and Technology Fund.
But the biggest benefit will come from the India-Asean connectivity project. In 2015, Modi offered one billion dollar line of credit for physical and digital connectivity between India and Asean. Nine out of 10 Asean countries will be directly connected through road route once the connectivity link is established. In addition, the India-Mayanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan multi-modal transit project, is something that will push trade and connectivity in the region.
However, as this new game of India versus China unfolds, India has to think beyond the ‘soft power’ approach which so far has been useful to build a bridge and create confidence among the Asean partners. But perhaps time has come to think about an Act East Policy 2.0 which goes beyond ‘intentions’ to ‘actions’ and from ‘brotherhood’ to ‘business’.
If India has to stay in the field, it will have to engage with all Asean partners, keeping in mind their needs and aspirations; and at the same time convince them that it will have to be a two-way process. While India has to engage with individual Asean partners, realising their individual strengths and developmental needs, the Asean partners will have to think beyond Chinese investments and appreciate that India brings much more strength to this relationship through trust and a reliable partnership.
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