India’s swivel to Asean

INDIA'S Republic Day celebrations last month sent a strong message. It announced as strikingly as possible that it is swivelling to Asean.

India's "Look East" policy goes back to the days of the then prime minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao., who realised the importance of East Asia, and Asean, in particular.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken the policy a step further with his "Act East" policy.

The metaphor has progressed from one of watching to that of activity, or rather of active participation.

The symbolic gestures at the Republic Day celebrations were taken to a spectacular high.

The 10 Asean leaders witnessed the parade. As if that were not enough, India's highest honours were bestowed on many prominent civilians from Southeast Asia.

Malaysia's famed dancer, Datuk Ramli Ibrahim was one such recipient. He received the coveted Padma Shri award.

These signs are indicative of two things. One, that Asean is important on the global stage, whether or not President Trump is willing to acknowledge this.

Two, it shows that India knows that it has come of age, wants other nations to know that it has come of age, and wants them to know that it will participate in and cooperate with the development of Asean.
The second point is the more important one.

But has India done no more that wave its hands and fingers in colourful patterns up to Jan 26, 2018?

No, not really.

After a period of distancing itself from Myanmar, India has re-entered the picture.

Modi has offered assistance with the housing problem faced by the Rohingyas.

That may not be all that is necessary, but it is a significant step, when most countries have stopped at casting blame and accusations.

Though Vietnam is some distance from its own borders, India's relationship with it is a robust and long-standing one. Credit lines have been extended to boost Vietnam's maritime capabilities. India also participates in Vietnam's oil and gas ventures.

From the Asean side, Singapore has long been proactive, happily courting and investing in India when others were less eager.

Malaysia, after years of holding India in disregard, has changed its posture in more recent years. In part, this is a reflection of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's cognisance of the global role that India will play in the next decade or two.

It is not clear how Malaysia hopes to engage more deeply with India.

Trade and investment have been progressing slowly but surely. India today happens to be one of Malaysia's top 10 trade partners though not a very substantial one. It is the top importer of Malaysia's palm oil, a very important export product.

Malaysia's focus seems to be on providing construction services to India, with regard for the position that India will take on the global economic stage in the next 10 or 20 years. Most experts expect India to be one of the top three economic superpowers in the world at that time.

Further tests of how far India will go are yet to be seen.

For instance, how will India handle the South China Sea issue? It would not want to aggravate China.

Yet, it has to take into account the sensitivities of some Asean member states who have revised their perceptions of China and others who have not. All the while not sacrificing its interest in contributing to the stability of the area.

To take another instance. How will India respond to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership?

Will it soften its stance and face criticism within its own shores for opening up the Indian market too much? Or will it champion free trade and win the minds of Asean member states? Although Modi himself may be a keen proponent of free trade, the socialist legacy is hard to dismantle and most Indians would fear opening up.

The show over, bothersome details and compromises will have to follow.

Who said swivelling to Asean was going to be easy?

Dr Shankaran Nambiar is a senior research fellow at the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research. He is author of the book Malaysia in Troubled Times. Comments: