By Nayan Chanda, For The Straits Times

S-E Asia still important to India's development and security

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) talks with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President and Indian Minister of Home Affairs Rajnath Singh (L) as senior BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani looks on during the BJP parliamentary party meeting in New Delhi o
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) talks with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) President and Indian Minister of Home Affairs Rajnath Singh (L) as senior BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani looks on during the BJP parliamentary party meeting in New Delhi on June 6, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

South-east Asian countries may be forgiven for being worried about falling off India's new foreign policy map. The region, except for Myanmar, has been conspicuously absent in the sparse foreign policy statements to come from the newly elected Narendra Modi government.

When Indian envoys from neighbouring countries assembled this week for consultations with the new Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, the only diplomat posted to a South-east Asian country to be invited was the one posted to Myanmar. But the absence should not lead to hasty conclusions: South-east Asia remains important for India's economic development and security, even if it is not the first order of priority.

Reading between the early diplomatic chess moves suggests that Mr Modi's immediate foreign policy concerns have to do with national security rather than a broader regional strategy. This can be seen from the invitation extended to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) neighbours, and also Lobsang Sangay, Premier of the Tibetan Administration in exile, to Mr Modi's swearing-in ceremony on May 26.

It was also reflected in the subsequent hosting of China's special envoy, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, earlier this month, the conclave of Indian envoys from the neighbourhood on Monday, and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj making her first trip to Bangladesh.

China and Pakistan are traditional security concerns for India. It was not surprising then that Indian envoys summoned to Delhi for consultation included not only the ones from China and Pakistan but also from Myanmar which has close ties with China and has played an important role in India's ethnic insurgencies. The security aspect of Myanmar's importance rather than it being a neighbour is underlined by the fact that the country's Prime Minister - a former general - was not invited to Mr Modi's swearing-in ceremony, which was presented as a celebration of democracy in the region.

Mr Modi's choice of Mr Ajit Kumar Doval, former chief of India's intelligence service, to be his national security adviser also shows the new Prime Minister's security preoccupations. Mr Doval has a distinguished career in dealing with Pakistan, terrorist threats and domestic insurgent movements

By visiting Chinese-contested Arunachal Pradesh before the elections, Mr Modi also signalled the importance of territorial disputes in his dealings with China. Diplomatic sources say that during Mr Wang Yi's visit this month, the Indians raised the issue as requiring resolution for developing cooperation.

China's long-standing policy of helping Pakistan's defence capabilities against India, and its sustained attempt to build economic and security relations with India's South Asian neighbours - something India views as an attempt at encirclement - are clearly matters of urgent concern. Although some South-east Asian countries want India to play a balancing role to an assertive China strengthening its control over the South China Sea, the Modi administration does not seem interested.

When India attends the Asean ministerial meeting in August and the summit in Naypyidaw in November, the regional grouping will likely find India taking a cautious, low-key position.

This caution in dealing with the Chinese challenge can be seen in New Delhi's backtracking on Mr Modi's planned visit to Japan next month.

The trip would have been his first outside the Indian sub-continent as Prime Minister. The reason for the cancellation appears to be China's unhappiness, although the official excuse is the impending national budget.

The postponement means that Mr Modi will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Brics summit in Brazil next month before meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Brics is a grouping of major emerging economies Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

In this diplomatic pirouette focused on India's immediate security concerns, Mr Modi's dance with South-east Asian leaders takes a back seat.

Despite relegating Asean to the background in the first few months of his government, Mr Modi is expected to seek stronger relations with the region for economic reasons, indirectly countering China's dominant role.

India is aware of its enormous loss of ground to China in the region where, with the exception of Indonesia , all the countries count China as their biggest trading partner.

Opening a direct transportation link with Myanmar would give Indian industries access to the country's growing market. It may also to some extent counterbalance the dominant position China has built up during the years Myanmar was isolated by the West.

As Chief Minister of Gujarat, Mr Modi visited Singapore and established good rapport with officials there. This is likely to be pursued further as he tries to ramp up foreign investment and job creation in India.

New Delhi is unlikely to flaunt its military ties with Vietnam which is currently engaged in a bitter dispute with China. But it will probably continue training Vietnamese armed forces officers and repairing that country's Soviet-era armaments and naval assets.

South-east Asia may not be at the forefront of Mr Modi's foreign policy agenda, but it will be a valuable complement to his strategy in countering the challenge from China and Pakistan.

The writer is editor-in-chief of YaleGlobal Online, published by the MacMillan Center, Yale University, and sits on the university's Council on Southeast Asia Studies.

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