The emphatic election mandate for Modi and political uncertainty in the region have created opportunities for India.
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.
At many points through the build-up of this counter-dynamic, India was seen as a credible balancer. But Delhi never responded in a manner that inspired confidence. The inherent weakness of the Manmohan Singh government, which failed to make an impact despite a strong mandate in 2009, became its undoing, as governments outside assessed that Delhi was not in a position to take bold decisions. So, for all the personal warmth and regard, even the Abe government decided against concluding the nuclear negotiation with UPA 2, even though the Japanese PM was this year’s Republic Day chief guest.
Modi’s victory has turned this perception on its head. A clear mandate leaves almost no scope for ambiguity or uncertainty between intent and delivery. And in diplomacy, this can work wonders by simply enlarging the basket of possibilities and doables. What’s even better for Modi is that the country has delivered such a mandate after 30 years, forcing all partners to rejig old attitudes of dealing with a cautious India where government after government has watched its back before looking ahead.
It is this changing perception and the simultaneous rise of expectations from partner countries that provides India the best opportunity to play itself back into the East Asia game. Unlike his predecessors, who turned to the region only for answers to India’s difficult economic questions, Modi may find himself in a position to provide credible options to East Asian economies. Such is the level of political uncertainty in the region that an Indian resurgence will be seen as reassuring and helpful as smaller countries will not be forced to take sides. The emergence of a benign alternative is also the best strategic projection for India as it seeks to further its economic interest by projecting itself as a force of political stability. East Asia is one region where this approach could result in major dividends for India’s overall profile.
For now, not much heavy-lifting needs to be done. Signalling is important, and must convey the intent to recast India’s image as a favourable investment destination, along with a fierce willingness to deepen a structured political engagement with East Asia on all fronts, including defence cooperation, joint exercises and bolstering the Indian naval presence.
At the same time, this should open new levels of engagement with China, which has been cautious to not provoke India, given the tense environment it faces on other fronts, particularly the South China Sea. That is why a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement to lend greater predictability to military behaviour along the undemarcated Line of Actual Control was possible. A politically more stable Delhi with greater transformative ability must, therefore, look to push the envelope further in terms of extracting more strategic comfort from China.
In sum, there could be no better window of opportunity for India is the complex East Asia environment — one that has been created by a remarkable election mandate. It is now up to the Modi government to deliver.