Speaking Of Asia

India's 'Act East' policy needs flesh on the bone

Its trade with region lags far behind China's - a pity when there are interest and opportunity

In the fortnight past, I've had the privilege of participating in conferences in Singapore and New Delhi, where Indian political leaders and top officials sought to project their government's renewed policy emphasis on the Indian Ocean and East Asia.

The refrain is similar, and familiar: The Look East policy, now tweaked as Act East policy, is a real thing. South-east Asia, embodied by Asean, remains at the "core" of this policy, which extends to South Korea and Japan, Australia, and even the Pacific Islands. As for the Indian Ocean, Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year described it as "at the top of our policy objectives".

There are subtexts, of course, to all this. The first is that India, with its largely peaceful and law-abiding ways, is the model to follow for a region where the dominant power tends to scoff at international law when its interests collide with it. Another is that dominance of the Indian Ocean belongs to the nation the expanse of water is named after.

These various threads converge in a grand vision that harks back to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's founding prime minister, who hosted the Asian Relations Conference in March-April 1947. That Nehru considered it important to host such a conference even as he led only a provisional government that had not yet got independence speaks for the breadth of his intellect and his foresight.

That Nehru's vision remains unrealised speaks for the turns history has taken as well as the inward-looking instincts of his successors, including, chiefly, his own daughter, the late Indira Gandhi. Nehru's own policy of self-reliance, brought on partly because McCarthyist America, suspicious of his nonalignment policy, would not give him steel and other technology, dragged India away from its old moorings in South-east Asia. Today, it seems hard to imagine that the British had actually tried to introduce the Indian rupee as legal tender in the Straits Settlements and on the other side of the Indian Ocean, that it was the currency of exchange in Dubai and Qatar until 1959.


Thus it remained until Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, and his finance minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, began to dismantle the Socialist-era controls in 1991 and then began speaking of a Look East policy. Asean responded warmly. India was given sectoral dialogue partnership status in 1992 and full dialogue partnership status three years later. A decade later, Singapore helped midwife its entry into the Asean Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit.

South-east Asia, on the whole, welcomes the increasing Indian interest in the region. The mistrust China has earned by its actions in recent years provides an even bigger opening for New Delhi to press its influence. But putting flesh on the bones of that policy will need more than sending Indian frigates for patrols in the South China Sea. And that muscle can come only with trade, connectivity and people-to-people contact.

India's steadily improving relations with the US helped matters in a region that had long grown comfortable with America's benign influence around its waters, the investments and technology it brought and the jobs it had created. Now a strategic dimension has been added to all this, thanks to the burgeoning triangular relationship between India, Japan and the US. There is the possibility too of reviving a quadrilateral dimension with the inclusion of Australia. Strategically, India is on the move.

But strategic ties, while valuable, remain constructs in the geopolitical space whose benefits do not reach down to everyman. And that is where the problems begin.


As a civilisation built on respectful argument and openness to outside influences, including thought, Indians not only have had the questions, but they also have had most of the answers. And both in their Indian Ocean policy and Act East intentions they are aware of the solutions needed to realise their ambitions: Connectivity. Trade. Tourism.

"For the Indian Ocean to attain its true potential," India's Foreign Secretary, Mr S. Jaishankar, told a conference in Singapore earlier this month, "It is imperative that India, which is its centre of gravity, should be a facilitator rather than an obstructor. That requires a smoother movement of goods and people within India and also to its immediate neighbourhood. And beyond."

But there the problems begin.

Over the past quarter century of economic reform, the world is used to an India whose actions consistently fall short of its commitments. When Mr Modi took charge of India, there was a doer's promise that things might, finally, change. Mr Modi came into national leadership after several visits to China and Japan, and admiration for Singapore's Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, whom he considers something of a mentor. Under his supervision, his home state of Gujarat had come to be labelled the "Guangdong of the East".

Yet, it is a pity that in a government that has moved so speedily on so many fronts, trade - that most efficient and peaceful of connectors - remains a laggard. Worse, India's trade with Asean actually regressed last year - according to the Asean Secretariat, two-way trade was just short of US$59 billion (S$81 billion), dropping from US$68 billion the previous year. On the other hand, Asean and India had set a target of reaching US$100 billion in merchandise trade by last year.

Meanwhile, China's trade with the region is more than six times that of India's and it is Asean's No. 1 trade partner, giving it outsize influence in the region. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's plaintive pleas to Beijing to resume normal trade, tourism and investment contacts with his nation, and his willingness to downplay the arbitral ruling over the South China Sea that so resoundingly went in his favour, are an indicator of what really matters for many in this region.

Indians are surely aware of this. Yet, Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is so defensive on easing up on trade that the United States has not only omitted strategic ally India from its Trans-Pacific Partnership, the economic plank of its Asia pivot, but even the less ambitious Apec, short for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Key people in the Prime Minister's Office are said to be similarly inclined. All this makes Mr Modi seem less sure-footed in his ability to get things done and frustrates those who wish his nation well.


India does a little better on another key factor, travel. Indian visitors to Asean are growing at a healthy 15 per cent annually and touched 3.5 million last year, so noticeable that even breakfast buffets in many hotels in Manila - the Asean capital most distant from New Delhi - have Indian food on the menu these days.

But going the other way can often be a nightmare. A few months ago, Mr Alan John, who retired as deputy editor of this newspaper, sought a tourist visa to attend a wedding in Bangalore. Although he is superannuated, Mr John was summoned to the Indian High Commission and had to sign an undertaking that he would not do reporting in India before he was granted entry. Ms Maria Siow, a Singaporean who works in Beijing as an analyst, was given a similar runaround when she sought a visa to attend last week's conference in New Delhi organised by the East West Centre of Hawaii. Ironically, the theme of the conference, where senior Indian and US officials appeared, was "South Asia Looking East".

For a nation that aspires to be a 21st century power, India sometimes tends to display insecurities commonly attached with smaller nations.

That is a pity. South-east Asia, on the whole, welcomes the increasing Indian interest in the region. The mistrust China has earned by its actions in recent years provides an even bigger opening for New Delhi to press its influence. But putting flesh on the bones of that policy will need more than sending Indian frigates for patrols in the South China Sea. And that muscle can come only with trade, connectivity and people-to-people contact.

New Delhi's complaint that South-east Asia has been slow to open up services - an area in which it is competitive - is perhaps a valid one. But it needs to view trade liberalisation as a strategic imperative, and decide on that basis.

As Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, put it in New Delhi last week, nobody in South-east Asia perceives India as an enemy. That is the good thing. The bad thing is that India has not made use of the opportunity. "From Look East to Act East, India too frequently seems At Ease," he quipped, and quite correctly.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2016, with the headline 'India's 'Act East' policy needs flesh on the bone'. Print Edition | Subscribe