From Japan to Singapore, China to Australia and Vietnam to Myanmar, Asian chancelleries are hoping relations with India will get a big boost under Modi’s leadership.
If the scale of Narendra Modi’s victory has surprised much of the world, one region, East Asia, is waiting with enthusiasm for India’s prime minister to be. From Japan to Singapore, China to Australia and Vietnam to Myanmar, Asian chancelleries are hoping relations with India will get a big boost under Modi’s leadership. Unlike their Western counterparts, no one in the region sought to distance themselves from Modi all these years. Many in Asia were impressed by Gujarat’s business-friendly environment and reached out to Modi. Among the few nations that Modi visited as the chief minister of Gujarat were Singapore, Japan and China.
Beijing surely has concerns about Modi’s tough rhetoric on the border dispute and his plans for a rapid modernisation of India’s defences. Some in Tokyo might value Modi for precisely the reason that he is ready to make India count in the new geopolitics of East Asia. Many in Asean have long urged India to contribute more actively to the Asian balance of power. Most Asian leaders are betting that India under Modi might be a more purposeful interlocutor than the UPA government. That is one advantage of signalling strong political will; even those who have differences with Modi in one arena are likely to welcome the opportunity to do business in another.
Although India’s relations with the region have significantly expanded over the last decade, the frustrations of dealing with the UPA government, whether it was in the areas of commerce or defence, had taken their toll on the region. Much in the manner that the people of India have voted for a decisive national leadership, New Delhi’s partners across Asia are cheering the arrival of an Indian government that they can productively engage with.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s persistence helped drag India into free-trade agreements with Asean, Japan and South Korea over the last decade. But India under the UPA remained a hesitant defence partner. In the first couple of years of UPA rule, defence minister Pranab Mukherjee expanded India’s security engagement with East and Southeast Asia. A.K. Antony, who followed him to become India’s longest-serving defence minister, wrecked Asia’s hopes for credible defence partnerships with Delhi.
Under Antony, the ministry of defence turned into a crabby and capricious interlocutor. At the multilateral level, the MoD had neither the vision nor the will to contribute to regional security cooperation in Asia. For Antony, who skipped important ministerial meetings in the region, defence diplomacy was a burden, not a strategic opportunity.
At the bilateral level, requests for greater interaction with the Indian armed forces and civilian defence establishments were routinely turned down under Antony. In a period that saw China, Japan and Asean dramatically expand defence diplomacy in Asia, Antony actively diminished India’s prospects as a net provider of security in Asia.
The new government under Modi has much ground to make up when it takes charge of the nation’s defence in the coming days. One way of hitting the ground running is to ensure high-level Indian presence at the Shangi-La Dialogue in Singapore at the end of this month. Organised by the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the annual Shangri-La Dialogue brings together all defence ministers and senior officials from across the Asia-Pacific, including the US, for discussions on regional security.
This year, the conference will be opened by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is determined to strengthen Japan’s defence capabilities to cope with the rise of China. Locked in an escalating territorial confrontation with China and anxious about America’s commitment to the security of Japan, Abe wants to build new security partnerships with India and key Asean countries.
Like Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines are also at the receiving end of China’s new military clout. Recognising the limitations of Asean in providing collective security, they too are looking for purposeful defence partnerships with major powers like India. Modi must send his defence minister and the national security advisor, along with senior MoD officials and top military brass, to connect with as many Asian defence ministers as possible. The Shangri-La Dialogue is too valuable an opportunity for the new government to miss.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for
‘The Indian Express’