Member Governing Council. Asian Confluence. Former Director General, Indian Council for World Affairs
Rabindranath Tagore contributed richly to the re-discovery and consolidation of India’s Eastern connections. Through his three-nation tour, Prime Minister Modi is presently engaged in carrying forward this mission. This follows the new government’s recent initiatives to strengthen relations with the region. The current voyage is watched with deep interest by all those interested in deciphering the subtle but important difference between India’s ‘Look East Policy’ and ‘Act East Policy.’ The first leg of PM’s tour, which has just ended in Myanmar, was a demonstration that the new policy represents not a negation but re-calibration and further enrichment of the previous policy.
The two-day stay of PM’s delegation stay in Naypyitaw, Myanmar’s new capital, witnessed deliberations which had three separate – but inter-related – components.
First, India-Myanmar relations came into a sharp focus at PM’s meeting with President Thein Sein. The host depicted the two nations ‘like brothers’, calling their ties fraternal. Considering that Myanmar treated China as a ‘cousin’ in the past, Thein Sein seemed to be indicating a preference for better balance in Myanmar’s equations with its two giant neighbours. For India, Myanmar is ‘a valued friend’ and strengthening cooperation with is ‘a priority.’ The two leaders reviewed past progress, exploring how connectivity, commerce and culture could be deployed to upgrade the relationship. The coming year is certain to see a full-fledged Modi-Thein Sein summit.
PM Modi’s meeting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi showed the breadth of India’s political access in a country that stands at a crossroads now. Reform process including the transition to democracy has progressed well since 2010, but of late it has slowed down. With the political class pondering on the challenges ahead, Suu Kyi urged India to emphasize (presumably to political and military leaders in Myanmar) that stability and democracy could go together. This was Suu Kyi’s rejection of the traditional view that military alone can ensure stability. It was also a plea to support her presidential candidacy. While visiting India in 2012, she told an Indian journalist that if the constitution was not amended to permit her candidature, 2015 elections might be ‘free but not fair.’ This is where the country is heading at present. India’s only choice would be to urge wisdom to all sides and forge national consensus.
The second component related to India-ASEAN relations. Its key features and future directions shone through clearly at the bilateral summit and Modi’s meetings with individual leaders at the summit’s sidelines. The PM’s reasoning was straight forward: a new era of economic development has begun in India; ASEAN has a unique identity and voice in global affairs; and the two sides are enriched through multiple convergences. They must now build on the strategic partnership by enhancing economic cooperation and increasing their contribution to peace, stability and balance in the region.
The new conception of connectivity with ASEAN goes beyond roads and physical infrastructure. It lays emphasis on digital linkages and expansion of people-to-people relations. India’s appreciation for the achievements of Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea in the domain of urban renewal, performance-monitoring and industrial competence respectively was ariculated, thus indicating where future ties will be deepened. As officials give finishing touches to the cooperation action plan for the next five years, they will give ample place in it to skilling, capacity building and a wider use of IT and space applications.
Political-level discussions also covered issues relating to security cooperation. India’s interest in ‘everyone’ following international norms and laws and upgrading maritime security was conveyed in unmistakable terms. Specifically, with an eye fixed on China, Modi urged ASEAN to speed up its efforts to conclude the Code of Conduct on South China Sea. ASEAN is bound to take heart from this clear exhortation at a time when it suffers from calculated procrastination.
The last facet of conference diplomacy centred on India’s participation in the East Asia Summit. ASEAN and its eight interlocutors were represented at the highest levels. EAS is an excellent idea, but whether its time has arrived, is still unclear. It has the potential to be the apex forum to take decisions on vital political, security and development issues affecting the entire region, but it is still struggling to play this role. China, for one, has reservations. Its ambassador in Delhi recently called EAS merely an economic grouping. Discussions in Nyapyitaw covered various ‘soft’ issues like disaster management and education. The Indian leader called for a comprehensive response against ‘all terrorism’ and for adherence to international norms for peace and security.
The central question craving for an answer is whether East Asia’s future will be moulded by the ‘Chinese dream’, ‘APEC dream’ or ‘Asian century’ passionately advocated by PM Modi. Clearly India’s interests lie in advancing the last-mentioned concept. Its fruition, however, depends on harmony at the high table of the four majors – US, China, India and Japan. Signals from Naypyitaw remain hazy for the present.
Finally, the importance of PM Modi’s voyage transcends India’s burgeoning relations with East Asia. As it unfolds further, it promises to showcase the new leadership’s expanding worldview stretching from Fortaleza (Brazil) to Fiji.
The author is the former director general of ICWA and a former ambassador to Myanmar. Views are personal.
This Article was previously published in The Times of India on 15 Nov 2014 and is reproduced here with the permission of the author.