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Each time India has sought to shake itself out of its stupor, it has looked east for hope and opportunity. P.V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh did when they initiated the economic reforms. As prime minister, too, Singh looked east when he embarked on an agenda to develop a framework of open trading arrangements. While the idea failed to move at the pace he may have desired, Singh always held as special the east and southeast Asian countries, their leaders and plans.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it appears, shares this affinity and perhaps it is in the nature of priorities that for any Indian leader looking to fashion an economy-led international engagement, the vibrant economies of the east are the best place to begin. But as Modi takes guard, there is a difference this time around, where his rise has meant that countries in the east now also look at India with hope.
The reason lies in the disturbed political waters of an otherwise calm East Asia. China’s rising profile and assertive behaviour is at the heart of this unstable political environment, which is becoming increasingly competitive, noisy and worrisome. This has prompted a counter-response from Japan which, after Shinzo Abe’s election, has aggressively pursued the US and Australia to form strategic coalitions that can check against China changing the rules of engagement. The Japanese strategy has not necessarily found acceptance among all Southeast Asian countries, which try to not get herded into camps even though their concerns largely remain the same.
Indonesia, for instance, has piloted a course of engagement with China in a bid to secure a 6 per cent plus growth rate while Vietnam finds itself at complete odds with China, despite strong communist party links. The recent Chinese provocation of bringing an oil rig to the contested waters nears the Paracel Islands and then sinking a fishing boat that approached the rig has raised tensions in the region, with some observers fearing that the situation mimics the months before World War I.
Farfetched as these claims may be, the fact is that Asean as a grouping has never been under such extended duress. It is trading between bad options while trying to maintain an environment conducive for conducting business with its biggest trading partner, China. At the same time, Beijing is using all its might and muscle to exploit divisions within the group as in 2012 through Cambodia, when, for the first time in Asean history, a summit declaration was not possible due to unresolved differences over the text. These divisions have since deepened and are poised to force realignments.