Rolling the red carpet
By inviting key ASEAN leaders to the Republic Day function, India has made a decisive move to reign in Chinese clout.
It was the long-term vision of former Prime Minister Narashima Rao to forge closer ties with the then Asian tigers, which were to become one of the two wings of global growth. He launched the Look East policy, aiming to synergise India's growth with the leapfrogging achieved by Asia. The policy became pivotal to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's vision of transforming it into the Act Asia policy, by broadening India's relation with ASEAN to defence and security cooperation.
Though at the surface level, the idea of inviting ASEAN leaders to the Republic Day celebrations is to commemorate 25 years of partnership, the real aim is to dig at China's aggressive postures in the South China Sea and its flexing economic muscles through BRI (Belt and Road Initiative). This is the first time so many presidents are being invited together to be the guests at a Republic Day celebration.
Given the shared maritime and land boundaries, India-ASEAN connectivity will pave the way for India's greater role to ensure security in the region, sought by the ASEAN. In a way, the connectivity will be directed against China's predatory designs to usurp the Asian power. New Delhi will hold a 25 years Commemorative Summit before the Republic Day celebration, where Modi will give updates of some of the construction activities underway for the connectivity. Viewed closely, these activities may pose a challenge to China's assertiveness for Asian power. For example, the India-Thailand trilateral highway through Myanmar and its extension to Laos and Cambodia exemplify the intentions. The highest priority will be given to the connectivity in road and river and their financial stakes, according to Minister for Road and Transport Nitin Gadkari.
Other cases of the connectivity, which may challenge China's economic outreaches, are India's proposed Line of Credit of $500 billion for projects that support physical and digital connectivity between India and ASEAN. India has set up a Project Development Fund of $77 million to create manufacturing hubs in CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam) and ASEAN-India air connectivity will be optimised, according to Gadkari.
Besides connectivity, maritime cooperation, which has become the backbone of India-ASEAN strategic partnership, may become instrumental in reducing tensions in the South China Sea. Both have agreed to establish a Maritime Transport Working Group among India and Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia to examine the feasibility of shipping networks, maintain their stakes and safeguard their interests in the region.
To this end, Vietnam will be the linchpin in the ASEAN leaders' visits during the Republic Day celebrations. The visit of Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang, back to back visit after the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Vietnam in September 2016, will unleash a significant momentum in the relations. Modi's visit to Vietnam, 15 years after a visit to that country by an Indian Prime Minister and particularly after the outbreak of dispute in the South China Sea, holds paramount importance for India to play a new role in the region. China defied arbitration by UN Convention on Law of Sea (UNCLOS) against its claim for sovereignty in the water. In the South China Sea, both India and Vietnam's interests are involved. In this perspective, China's defiance has become a major security concern.
For India, the major concern is that half of its international trade passes through the South China Sea. The sea water turns volatile for India's trade transit in the wake of the disputes between Vietnam and China with their maritime rights. In addition to trade, India's oil interests in the South China Sea are in doldrums due to the disputes. With China's defiance, India is at loggerheads with its off-shore oil drilling in Vietnam territorial water in the sea. In 2006, ONGC was awarded two oil blocks in Vietnam's territorial water. One of them was relinquished by ONGC. The remaining block (Block 128) is caught in dispute after China claimed its sovereignty.
Even though China is the biggest trade partner of Vietnam, it could not make a dent in the preference list of the Vietnamese. India is much above China in the Vietnamese choices, despite economic relations between the two countries being at low ebb and the country being ruled by a communist regime (Communist Party of Vietnam).
Modi's visit to Vietnam after the UN arbitration raised hopes for Vietnam to strengthen its arm to put pressure on China. Vietnam did not put direct pressure on Beijing, fearing China's political and military clout. It conveyed its concerns through the support of other powerful countries opposing the Chinese defiance. India is one of them.
To this end, Modi's commitment for $500 million credit to Vietnam for procurement of defence equipment and implementation of India-Vietnam Defence Relations of May 2015 underscored India's role as a big brother in South East Asia against Chinese aggressive postures. The ten-year-old strategic partnership between India and Vietnam was ramped up to a comprehensive strategic partnership engagement, unleashing deeper meaning of all-round cooperation between the two countries.
On the economic front, Singapore — one of the key members of ASEAN— has become the second biggest foreign investor, leaving behind major investors like USA, Japan, the Netherlands and Germany. This reflects a simmering success of the Act Asia policy in fostering economic engagement between India and ASEAN. During the three years of the Modi government, foreign investment acted as a safeguard in the wake of domestic investors languishing. In this perspective, extending the red carpet to ASEAN leaders on the Republic Day will pose a big challenge to China in reigning in its economic and political clout in Asia.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)