Declaring that “India and Singapore have been together at many crossroads of time,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi traced the interconnectedness of the two nations through ties of history, culture, kinship and commerce. He underscored the Southeast Asian city-state’s special role in India’s reform and modernisation story today. The bilateral relationship, that started with Singapore’s independence 50 years ago, has now been elevated to a strategic partnership. India has sought to draw lessons from the economic and civic success of a tiny nation with scant resources. As Modi pointed out in the 37th Singapore Lecture he delivered on Monday, Singapore is not only India’s largest trading partner in Southeast Asia but also its “biggest source and destination” for investment, and a major partner in newer projects like smart cities, clean energy and sustainable infrastructure.
Singapore’s role in shaping the Asian future is no less significant. In calling Singapore “India’s springboard to the world and gateway to the East”, Modi harked back to leaders who shaped modern India’s relations with Southeast Asia. Like P.V. Narasimha Rao more than two decades ago, whose government formulated and enacted the Look East policy, this was Modi’s reaffirmation of New Delhi’s commitment to “Act East” by cultivating good relations with all Asian powers, including China, Japan and Korea, as well as accelerating India’s economic integration with Asean, the “anchor of our Act East policy”.
India has signed a new, enhanced bilateral defence cooperation agreement with Singapore along with nine deals, including on cyber security, civil aviation and shipping. But for much of the last decade, Delhi has let Singapore and its Southeast Asian partners down by failing to step up to the larger security role these nations expected it to play. The new defence pact reinforces Delhi’s commitment to be a net security provider in East Asia and the Pacific. Modi has said that the seas, space and the cyber domain shouldn’t become “new theatres of contests” but avenues of “shared prosperity”. Given that this statement was made in the context of the standoff in the South China Sea, India must use its own experience in keeping its border with China stable, despite “unresolved issues” — in the PM’s own words — to offer help in keeping the sea lines of communication navigable for all. As it steps up its military-economic diplomacy in the region, that’s the first challenge Delhi will face. It is one it cannot afford to fail.
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