News analysis

India keen to boost ties with Malaysia amid China build-up

Deepening their strategic partnership is part of wider move to enhance links with S-E Asia

Malaysian Premier Najib Razak's visit to India is set to energise ties and deepen cooperation in trade and counter-terrorism, said experts, amid India's bid to draw closer to Asean countries other than Singapore.

Datuk Seri Najib, who is in India on a six-day visit with a delegation of around 100 business leaders, held talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last Saturday.

At a joint press briefing that day, Mr Najib said bilateral ties were at a "historic high", while Mr Modi said the two countries had agreed to strengthen their strategic partnership as he invited Malaysian businesses to invest in the world's fastest-growing economy.

Indian officials expect deals worth US$5 billion (S$7 billion) to be signed during the visit.

The two sides have agreed to ramp up trade links and are looking at deepening defence ties, with their air forces discussing cooperation in training and safety issues.

A joint statement released after the talks said the two countries supported freedom of navigation in the seas, and the resolution of disputes through peaceful means, against a backdrop of simmering tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Mr Najib's third visit in eight years comes as India is working to develop stronger relations with individual Asean nations to counter a growing Chinese presence in Asia, especially in India's neighbourhood.

China is building an economic corridor that includes roads, railways and pipelines to Pakistan, and is also helping to build a port in Sri Lanka.

While, among Asean countries, Singapore enjoys the closest ties with India and was instrumental in linking India with the group, Mr Modi has been looking to boost ties with other South-east Asian countries.

Four months ago, Indonesian President Joko Widodo also visited India. During his time here, the two countries agreed to boost maritime and defence cooperation.

Experts said New Delhi is making serious efforts to increase its engagement with South-east Asia even as countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia are showing their interest in tapping India's growing market.

"Since the 1990s, our focus has been on Singapore, which invited us into Asean and held our hands. Now, other countries are also coming up," said former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh.

He added that Malaysia, like Indonesia, is important for his country's Indian Ocean initiative, which aims to reach out to smaller countries in this region and boost India's maritime presence, to act as a counterweight to China.

He noted: "Malaysia is finally recognising that it has not been that active in exploiting India's economic opportunities. It is belatedly showing interest in the Indian economy to some extent."

Mr Najib said last Saturday that the "full potential of the bilateral relationship has not been realised", and that his visit would lead to cooperation in newer areas.

India and Malaysia had also agreed to cooperate on defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and jointly holding a major conference on deradicalisation.

Bilateral trade between the two countries reached US$12.8 billion in 2015 to last year, with Malaysia becoming one of India's largest trading partners in Asean.

Dr Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, said: "I think it's an important visit in the sense that we haven't had too much traction in ties with Malaysia... so the reach-out to the top leadership is a major highlight."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 03, 2017, with the headline India keen to boost ties with Malaysia amid China build-up. Subscribe