India’s emergence as an Asian powerhouse had been forecast since the end of the Cold War. After the liberalisation of the economy and its decision to finally look east, India found immense success in changing its image around the globe and being seen as a benign power that looks to abide and uphold the principles enshrined in international law. Under the Modi administration, India has enacted the Act East Policy that engages with Southeast Asian countries more actively across various sectors, including security. This article analyses the bilateral relations India shares with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other Indo-Pacific countries in order to assess the strength of its security architecture in its effort to create a mutually secure environment against traditional and non-traditional threats. The article explains that India’s position to its east is definitely improving, but in the context of current geopolitical trends and the omnipresence of its neighbour, China, it is not improving rapidly enough.
INDIA’S INTERACTION WITH SOUTHEAST ASIA IN THE TWENTY-FIRST century is well recognised on both a bilateral and a multilateral level. Effective partnerships, ranging from active Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) to security and economic exchanges, define India’s relations with most ASEAN states. But this was not always the case. During the Cold War and at the peak of the Non-Alignment Movement, India was almost apathetic to the concerns and ongoing problems of Southeast Asia.
In a fascinating episode in the Cold War history of the region, Singapore, at that time a growing economy, made multiple approaches to India to discuss and join bilateral security initiatives, which India either declined in some cases, or mostly did not even dignify with a response. As the scholar David Brewster notes, the prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, gave little importance to Southeast Asia during his term as the head of government, and placed the region low on the priority list of India’s foreign relations. The Indian stance was shaped by the countries in the region moving decisively into the U.S. orbit of influence, a development Nehru was strongly against. India, as a colony of the British, had earlier been used as security provider to Southeast Asia, but post independence it abdicated such a role to pursue other interests; but Singapore still envisioned India as an ideal security partner in a region that was enmeshed in several major conflicts.
This trend in Indian foreign policy persisted during the tenures of the prime ministers, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. The erudite Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, predicted that the British withdrawal from the region would pose serious security challenges to Singapore that needed to ensure it retained its newfound sovereignty. With looming racial and communist threats from all sides, Singapore turned to India for bilateral security partnerships during the 1960s and 1970s, all of which were turned down, with India only offering diplomatic assistance in return. Singapore was concerned about the “poaching” that might occur in the region by the superpowers and the withdrawal of the British from the region only accentuated this concern. In 1966, Singapore approached India to adopt an “Asian Monroe Doctrine” that would ensure the required stability in the region, believing the South Asian country to be the perfect candidate to take on the security role. In 1965, Lee requested Shastri for Indian assistance in training the newly formed Singapore army, to which India did not even respond due the possibility of a Malaysian reaction to the collaboration. In 1968, Lee again approached Indira Gandhi, in context of the British Naval withdrawal from Singapore, for providing security and encouraged India’s presence in Singapore as a replacement to the British. In 1970, during a visit to India, Lee posed a question to Indira Gandhi about India’s presence in Southeast Asian waters, to which the foreign minister at that time, Swaran Singh, replied that India was more focused on keeping its western sea-lanes open.
Map by the courtesy of Eric Gabba, Wikimedia Commons.
Though, India’s exclusion of the South East Asian regional security complex from its primary foreign policy considerations was not driven by its lack of interest in the region, yet India was concerned that the consequences of aligning with a certain state might foster a negative image or cause conflict. Further, ever since its defeat in the Sino-Indian border war in 1962, India was ever so focused on China and its growing influence. Indira Gandhi’s government even stated that China was a bigger threat to the Indochina region because of the Chinese military response to Vietnam’s overthrow of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1979.
But this reality has rapidly changed, and India now finds itself well-settled and accepted in the South East Asian regional security complex, allowing it widen its spheres of influence and capitalise on the growing multilateralism in Asia. The South East Asian regional security complex is an academic construct that largely addresses the Southeast Asian states as a whole, and the construct has manifested as the intergovernmental organisation, ASEAN. The construct falls under Barry Buzan’s Regional Security Complex Theory where states act as a collective for security and strategic purposes, and extraterritorial states perceive the region as a single collective.
In order to explore these themes, this article analyses the bilateral relations India shares with ASEAN as well as with Australia and New Zealand. It examines the implications of the growth of these relations, and the areas that persist as impediments to stronger relations.
A prominent area of interest convergence between India and Malaysia is counter-terrorism. The outstanding issue of the extradition of the Indian preacher/terrorist, Zakir Naik, is the next frontier of this area. Even though Malaysia agreed to give him permanent residency in 2012, in recent times Kuala Lumpur has adopted a serious anti-terrorism drive within its domestic sphere. Malaysia’s position on counter-terrorism and fighting extremism, both home and abroad, is located well within India’s sphere of interest, creating a vast number of avenues of cooperation. But to solidify this area into a conducive sphere of bilateral growth, Malaysia needs to positively respond to India’s demand for Zakir Naik’s extradition. Currently, Malaysia has been ambiguous about its decision to extradite Naik. The scenario is dichotomised—either the government chooses to deport him and Naik contests the decision in Malaysian courts; or if the government chooses not to deport him, it will refer the matter to the courts anyway and allow the latter to take a decision. If India and Malaysia are able to find further avenues of cooperation within this area, it could extend to creating a counter-terrorism network bilaterally, and perhaps even multilaterally.
Despite the change of government in Malaysia in 2018 that brought Mahathir Mohamad to power as prime minister, India-Malaysia ties continue to remain strong and fortitudinous. Most recently, the Indian Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa under took a three-day visit to Malaysia where notable advancement in defense ties, mainly between the two air forces, took place. The topics discussed were not made public, but it is understood that a large spectrum of matters were explored and the next step is to more intensively pursue the two countries’ growing cooperation.
Fundamentally, India-Malaysia relations lately have been defined by their security and strategic relations. Last year, both countries held another iteration of a large military exercise in Malaysia. The 2018 operation was known as “Harimau Shakti.” The Indian Defense Ministry had stated, “The exercise is aimed at bolstering cooperation and coordination between the armed forces of both the nations and to share the expertise of both the contingents in conduct of counter-insurgency operations in jungle terrain.”
Added to this, India and Malaysia share strong maritime relations. India regularly participates in the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition in Malaysia. Both countries have increased cooperation in information sharing during HADR operations, which are increasingly occurring in the Southeast Asian region. Indian Navy and Coast Guard often make port calls in Malaysia, which is being found to be increasingly important due to the expanding Chinese naval footprint. It is to be noted here that Malaysia may not be as politically polarised towards Chinese naval expansionism as India, even though there are outstanding issues between Malaysia and China in the South China Sea (SCS), namely in the Spratly Islands. Prime Minister Mahathir has made his view on the operations in the SCS abundantly clear; he believes that China will not continue to be a relentless aggressor in the region because it would not be pragmatic. More importantly, in spite of certain roadblocks in Sino-Malaysian relations, Mahathir continues to display exemplary forms of independent diplomacy and hedging behaviour towards China while maintaining a narrative of wanting stronger relations with Beijing.
An example of Malaysia’s independent diplomacy is its cancellation of three major Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects promoted by China—the East Coast Rail Link, the Multi-Product Pipeline, and the Trans-Sabah Gas Pipeline, leaving a very rare vacuum of no prominent Chinese projects within a sovereign state in Southeast Asia. The cancelled BRI projects in Malaysia have provided a unique opportunity for Indian investors to look into Malaysian infrastructure.
India shares an extremely benevolent and mature relationship with Singapore, underpinned by a long history of cooperation and consensus. With no conflicting arcs of interest and a long portfolio of defense ties, Singapore is arguably India’s strongest ally in the South East Asian regional security complex. But if observed carefully, Singapore has been playing a balancing game vis-à-vis China as well, with immense stability in their bilateral economic relations. Singapore has repeatedly shown wariness towards China’s political and economic influence within its sovereign borders, which is now manifesting into hesitancy around BRI projects. Singapore and China have agreed on a memorandum of understanding that addresses the mediation rules for disputes arising in the Belt and Road arbitration courts.The nature and logistics of implementing these rules are still subject to change and will be implemented on a case-to-case basis.
The crux of India-Singapore relations is security, which is tacitly directed towards China. Singaporean scholars have noted that India has the potential to act as major stabiliser of regional geopolitics and to widen the mandate of political interplay of the region beyond the U.S.-China rivalry.India shares a variety of bilateral exercises and visits with Singapore. Notable ones like the Singapore-India Maritime Exercises and the India-Singapore Defense Ministers’ Dialogue epitomise the amicable relations the countries share with one another.
Singapore has also acted as an insulator to all the heat BRI investments face in India. For example, the industrial park, One Hub Chennai, was developed by Ascendas-Singbridge, who partnered with China Machinery Engineering Cooperation (CMEC) and China National Machinery Industry International for the project’s preliminary stages. These firms marketed the project to other countries as a part of the BRI.Another such project is the CMEC’s alleged involvement in the development of Amaravati City.An issue that needs to be resolved bilaterally between India and Singapore is that of Chinese firms using Singapore companies as proxies to enter the Indian market and then listing those projects as a part of the BRI.Officials at the Indian ministry of external affairs have stated they were pursuing a conversation with Singapore regarding such collaboration, but they were very circumspect about the conversation at this nascent stage. A push for domestic legislation in either Singapore or India in regard to limiting Chinese firms’ participation in Indian infrastructure is imperative to maintaining India’s stance of standing against the BRI and for national security purposes.
With regard to counter-terrorism, Singapore has conducted bilateral counter-terrorism exercises with Indonesia in response to the growing presence and threats of the Islamic State and its affiliates in the region.This is mutually inclusive with India’s arc of interest. Considering India’s amicable relations with Singapore and its growing relations with Indonesia, it would lie within the Indian interest to conduct such exercises with these countries bilaterally or trilaterally, along with information exchange. This would also be in line with this author’s academic formulation of the Crescent of Cooperation.The Crescent of Cooperation outlines a series of economic and infrastructure projects which India can invest in Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. These projects would not only serve as a medium to further enhance India’s influence and cement its place as a cooperative power in the region, but would also give further strategic access to the crucial chokepoints around the Malacca and Lombok Strait.
Map showing the ports in India’s maritime security cooperation in South and Southeast Asia, by the courtesy of the High Commission of India in Singapore.
Scholars have identified Indonesia as integral to India’s future maritime policy and as a leading prospect for one of India’s strongest maritime and strategic partners. Indonesia’s Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF), its sea-bound drive for capability building, is an excellent opportunity for India to capitalise upon. Global Maritime Fulcrum was a manifestation of President Jokowi’s dream of turning Indonesia into a global maritime hub. He proposed this policy track in 2014, and it has steadily gained steam via domestic projects and policies.It is prudent here to divide the expectations in the GMF between ‘maritime safety’ and ‘maritime security.’ Maritime security is defined as, “the combination of preventive and responsive measures to protect the maritime domain against threats and intentional unlawful acts,” and maritime safety is “the combination of preventive and responsive measures intended to protect the maritime domain against, and limit the effect of, accidental or natural danger, harm, and damage to environment, risks or loss.”
As regards maritime security, Indonesia has shown significant interest in counter-terrorism and anti-piracy initiatives. Indonesia’s counter-terrorism policy is deemed a model for countries in their effort to tackle the growing presence of extremism and radicalism within sovereign borders. Indonesia has inculcated local and regional mechanisms to tackle ground level threats, and has conducted bilateral counter-terrorism exercises with Singapore in response to the growing presence and threat of the Islamic State and its affiliates in the region. This is mutually inclusive with India’s arc of interest. Indonesia and India have previously shared intel around counterterrorism. Considering India’s amicable relations with Singapore and its growing relations with Indonesia, it would lie within Indian interest to build on the established consensus on counter-terrorism and conduct such exercises with these countries bilaterally or trilaterally, along with information exchange.
Such cooperation, again, falls in line with the author’s Crescent of Cooperation formulation.India and Indonesia have been actively trying to strengthen their defense ties, which feeds organically into the idea of the Crescent, considering New Delhi’s growing relations with Singapore as well. India and Indonesia share three bilateral security forums, Defense Minister level Biennial meetings, Joint Defense Cooperation Committee (JDCC), and Indonesia-India Security Dialogue (IISD). Radar and sonar equipment production and procurement is one prominent area of growing cooperation,in which PT Len from Indonesia and Bharat Electronic Ltd were scheduled to sign an MoU at the end of 2018.
Indonesia and India have found significant common ground on politically barricading China’s aggression in the South China Sea. Both countries “have stressed the importance of resolving disputes by peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”Indonesia has been chronically concerned with Chinese maritime intrusions near the Natuna Islands.
But on the economic front, Indonesia may have found—in China—an answer to its burdensome sustainable energy problems. The renewable energy (RE) sector has repeatedly seen low levels of investment, thereby stalling progress on the sustainability agenda in the archipelagic country.China may be able to help Indonesia to fill this vacuum. There are severe impediments to Chinese breaking into the Indonesian RE sector, mainly the fact that the sector is dominated by Western and Japanese firms, and there is also the outstanding issue pertaining to the Indonesia-China Fast Track Program-1 electricity project of 2009. Nonetheless, considering how Indonesia is looking forward to reduce American influence in the country, Chinese investments might be a lucrative avenue if both the Asian countries are able to work past Indonesian reservations around Chinese modus operandi displayed in the BRI.
India and Thailand currently have a booming economic relationship. There is a gigantic project underway—the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway that streamlines trade within the three countries. Both the countries share a maritime border in the Andaman Sea and have conducted joint patrolling exercises. Thailand has hosted Indian vessels at its ports and there exists immense room for further maritime cooperation in the form of human resource exchange, technical education programmes and more intel sharing. There are talks to constitute a joint working group on strategic connectivity. Furthermore, both the Asian countries are part of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which has proven to be an efficient tool for regional integration and boosting their bilateral relations.
Yet, relations have not achieved their full potential; despite the vast scope for cooperation, trade has remained modest and well below its current estimated potential. In consideration of the existing Free Trade Agreement, it is necessary for policymakers in New Delhi and Bangkok to revisit their current economic relations and clearly identify the causes of stagnation.
Domestically, Thailand has passed a controversial cyber security law that arms the state and military with sweeping powers to control and limit the use of the internet within its jurisdiction.Internationally, Thailand has bilateral and multilateral cooperation with the United States, Australia, and ASEAN in the areas of counter-terrorism and intel sharing. The Southeast Asian country has engaged with other ASEAN countries in sub-regional agreements that are aimed at strengthening borders and establishing more effective border mechanisms against subversive forces.Since 2015, the Internal Security Operation Command has continued to provide counter-terrorism programmes to Malay-Muslim communities in the southern region of the country. Thailand’s crackdown against extremism at the domestic level is ridden with human rights violation accusations where the military has been charged with persecutory behaviour.
There is potential for India to find bilateral cooperation in security maximisation and intel sharing, considering the mutual counter-terrorism arc they share. Yet, in view of the accusations of the alleged human rights violations and negative pubic optics associated with Thailand at this point in time, it would be prudent to address that factor before moving ahead with any deal regarding infrastructure or security cooperation that would loom large in the areas where these allegations are surfacing.
Thailand is integral to China’s Indochina corridor, because of which the Southeast Asian country has been privy to various BRI projects. The Lao rail route will essentially tie in an important part of the Southeast Asia through one single mainstream trade route, but in the Thai section of the route there have been chronic delays and continuous impediments to establishment due to internal politics, red-tape, and constant cost-benefit reservations. It is to be noted that the BRI was thrust onto Thailand during the military government, and ever since the advent of the democratic government there has been a stagnation of policy initiatives and immense scepticism around BRI projects.Even though the Prayut government was initially proving to be bandwagoning with China and its BRI projects, which led to the initiation of the Thailand-China rail, it has grown more wary of China’s modus operandi and geopolitically more aware. In the interest of enjoying U.S. and Japanese favour in the region, Bangkok has adopted a more pragmatic balancing game. The return of the military government has led to the blending of BRI projects, dealing with tourism, digital services, and medicine among other things, into its cornerstone policy framework, ‘Thailand 4.0’ development strategy.
The development of the Kra Canal has seen close to US$ 30 billion already committed by private Chinese investors and it is estimated to be completed as soon as the next decade. The Kra Canal would be a principal route to circumvent the imposing Malacca Dilemma China faces in the Southeast Asian regional security complex. There are significant environmental concerns associated with the project and it is feared that the construction of the canal would be tremendously detrimental to the flora and fauna in the region. Furthermore, there are severe national security concerns regarding the project as it will cut across the southern region of Thailand that has continuously seen dissent and violence, and it is believed that the canal would further exacerbate the divide and animosity between the Thai Buddhist and the Thai Malay Muslim communities.
India and Vietnam share the most conducive and mutually appreciative relationship in the entire South Asian/Southeast Asian regional security complex. They share what is considered a “comprehensive and strategic relationship.” The ONGC Videsh deal between the two countries in Vietnam’s oil Block 128 in the South China Sea perfectly captures the commitment Vietnam has to its bilateral relations with India. The Block falls within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), but also comes within China’s self-proclaimed 9-dash line, which caused deep concerns to the Southeast Asian country. In lieu of geopolitical developments in the South China Sea, Vietnam’s shift towards the United States and its convergence with Western coalitions is a positive sign, as Hanoi’s and India’s interests will prove to be crucial in context of the growing hostilities in the region. The shift towards the United States, and more importantly towards India, has led to Vietnam adopting a rhetorically confrontational tone against China. Vietnam has served as Indian representation within ASEAN, and both countries have agreed on the need for incrementally building on the multilateral front based on their bilateral relationship. A US$100 million line of Indian credit has been accorded to Vietnam in order to facilitate the manufacturing and deployment of high-speed Vietnamese patrol vessels. New Delhi is hoping for its deep military ties with the country to lead to sales of other equipment, boosting their trade and strategic partnership. But there is significant hesitation by the Vietnamese side about further ties in this regard. Inspite of its vehement opposition to China’s economic and military expansionism into its sphere of operations, Vietnam, like all the other countries, will at some level want to hedge against China rather than adopt a hardline policy against it and side completely with the ‘anti-China’ bloc. The unused US$500 million Indian line of credit for defense equipment purchases is a manifestation of this very behaviour.
Vietnam has committed to uphold an open and free Indo-Pacific. The president of India, Ram Nath Kovind, remarked during his visit to Vietnam in November 2018, “We reiterated the importance of building a peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific region on the basis of respect for national sovereignty and international law.” It is in the interest of Vietnam to comply with this stand due to its outstanding issues in the South China Sea vis-à-vis China, and the consequent growing threats to its sovereignty.
Map showing India and China’s competitive maritime strategies, by the courtesy Cody Poplin, Law Fare.
In spite of the frostiness with China, Vietnam has displayed hedging behaviour while interacting with the East Asian giant. It has traditionally looked neither to gang up against China, nor to overtly accuse of China of its actions when its sovereignty was directly threatened. On the economic front, Vietnam has seen steadily growing Chinese presence in its economy. Currently there are plans for establishing Chinese factories in special economic zones in Vietnam. China had previously objected to the presence of ONGC Videsh in its own self-proclaimed territory, and there is speculation that ONGC had requested for a swap in oil blocks, in part due to the pressure imposed by China. Vietnam and China also opened a cross-border bridge that cost China close to 220 million yuan. The bridge streamlines the goods transported across the border and strengthens the routes needed for connectivity in the BRI.
Cambodia has increasingly shifted towards the Chinese agenda, moving away from the U.S. and Indian orbit. If this trend continues, it could be detrimental to India’s interest in the Indo-Pacific. A significant vacuum was left for China to fill because Indo-Cambodian bilateral relations remained unfulfilled in the post-Cold War period. With bilateral maritime relations with Cambodia are on the upswing, the Indian Navy has made a few port calls in Cambodia over the last few years.
China deepened its ties with Cambodia on the economic front by becoming the Southeast Asian country’s biggest trading partner. China’s military footprint is also larger in Cambodia than that of any other country. The two countries are allegedly working towards establishing a Chinese military naval port in Cambodia. There have been reports of Chinese investment in Koh Kong port in Cambodia, which is currently estimated to have reached US$3.8 billion. There is no public record or statement about the militarisation of the port, but it is estimated that it is capable of housing Chinese frigates and destroyers. The development of the port, spanning almost twenty percent of the country’s coastline, is controlled by a Chinese company with a ninety-nine year lease to build an international airport, deep-water seaport, industrial park and luxury resort. During the general election in 2018 there were severe protests against China’s controversial presence in the country.
The principal reason for Cambodia to move towards China and collaborate in the maritime sphere is not the Chinese subversion or encumbrance, but it is being done from a self-interest angle. Cambodia has weak maritime infrastructure and China’s involvement can help upgrade and meet the current standards in the Indo-Pacific, an area that is quickly turning volatile. With the nexus of conflict shifting to the maritime sphere, one cannot expect the development of China-Cambodia relations to slowdown, and India needs to revaluate its role bilaterally with the Southeast Asian country and within the region.
Traditionally, Australia in all its previous defense white papers had identified the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific as separate spheres, thereby excluding South Asia from consideration while it established its policies vis-à-vis Southeast and East Asia. The amalgamation of both these zones into the Indo-Pacific in 2015 brought India and Australia closer strategically and politically. India has seen a total of twenty-one mentions in the 2016 defense white paper, and the Indo-Pacific was cited sixty-nine times.This development, however, has not led to soft tides, but has often forced their bilateral relationship to course through choppy waters. Earlier, India and Australia were linked as a part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue along with the United States and Japan, but Australia pulled out in 2008.Australia has shown interest in reengaging in dialogue regarding the Quad in the context of the Indo-Pacific, but India has shown hesitancy, fearing the move would most likely antagonise China.
On a bilateral level, India and Australia have shared a frosty relationship. Australia has not been invited to participate in the Malabar exercises since 2007, and since Japan became a permanent participant in the exercises in 2015, it demonstrates that there is a significant distance to be covered in their relationship. It has been suggested that Australia should be included in these exercises in the coming years to rebuild a cooperative environment in which these powerful maritime states can collaborate and project unified strength against common issues and threats.
A step in this direction is Indo-Australian cooperation in counter-terrorism. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs explains, “The two sides agreed to further strengthen counter-terrorism cooperation through regular exchange of information, capacity building efforts, mutual legal assistance, sharing of best practices on countering violent extremism and cooperating in multilateral fora such as the United Nations and the Financial Action Task Force on Money laundering.”
Australia and China have a complex relationship that is fundamentally dichotomised—dependence in the economic sphere, and fear and scepticism in the political sphere. China is Australia’s biggest trading partner and export market. But the oceanic state continues to face a serious problem in the incursion of Chinese money into Australian domestic affairs and politics. To tackle this, the Australian government passed sweeping national security legislations in June 2018 banning foreign interference in domestic politics, which severely implicates Beijing’s economic relations with the island country.
India sees New Zealand as an integral part of the Indo-Pacific. The establishment of this larger construct in the Asian maritime sphere has spread a large net across the Eastern hemisphere, jettisoning previously strategically invaluable countries such as the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Micronesia and the Polynesia States into India’s strategic orbit. There has been tremendous growth in bilateral relations since the turn of the century and economic relations are on the upswing. But the trade deficit between India and New Zealand (which favours New Zealand) has proven to be a principal impediment to the long-established plans for a free-trade agreement.
New Zealand has declared that it faces severe maritime trade issues, both traditional and non-traditional. A 2016 New Zealand defense report notes Chinese disruptive behaviour of unprecedented nature in its regions of influence. It declares that China’s disruptive behaviour and chronic modus operandi has been insensitive to international laws, more specifically of the UNCLOS.
On the Indo-Pacific and terrorism, the New Zealand government observed in its 2018 defense report:
Southeast Asia may face a growing terrorist threat, as foreign fighters return from the Middle East, more experienced terror instigators are released from prison, and home-grown terrorist elements may be fostered by deepening religious fundamentalism. Terrorist groups leverage local grievances, and capitals are challenged to extend governance to the outer reaches of their borders. It will be critical to develop and deepen defence partnerships in Southeast Asia and, where appropriate, assist in countering violent extremism and counter terrorism missions, in cooperation with partners.
New Zealand continues to invest in strengthening regional architecture that helps to protect the rights of small states and enhances stability, security and free access to the global commons. Its participation in the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) and its Expert Working Groups remains a priority, as does its close cooperation with ASEAN partners to support and strengthen that institution which it considers vital to promoting resilience in this critical region. For New Zealand, continuing investment in bilateral defence relationships with ASEAN is also important.
Since North Korea remains a critical disarmament and non-proliferation challenge, it will continue to be in New Zealand’s interest to support efforts toward de-nuclearisation, as well as maintain its presence at the reinvigorated United Nations Command, both of which are valued by its allies and close partners. A New Zealand policy paper explains:
Our interests are likely to dictate less flexibility in managing our relationships with those who assertively challenge the rules-based order. Defence should be prepared to cooperate with a range of traditional and non-traditional partners, in practical terms and in accordance with our values, on operations such as HADR in the Pacific and in Southeast Asia. Defence must also be clear-eyed about the implications of geostrategic competition, and the range of effects and insecurities that may impact partners in our neighbourhood and further afield. Defence should stand ready to assist partners and multilateral institutions in ways the Government may direct.
The narrative around this policy is very suitable for India to capitalise on, and to push for stronger bilateral relations with Oceanic state. But outstanding trade disputes and geographical distance will continue to act as serious impediments to growing cooperation. There has not been any significant development in bilateral maritime cooperation. The growing relations between India and Australia though may pave the way for the Indian Navy to increase the frequency of visits to the region, and initiate port calls in New Zealand as well.
India’s presence in the Indo-Pacific continues to grow as the region becomes more accessible because of globalisation and the convergence of its own national interests with those of the countries of the region. Abandoning its Cold War policies, India has not only moved eastwards but also bilaterally strengthened its position with various ASEAN countries. Despite the improvement in relations, the threat of China’s regional omnipresence persists.
India must actively encourage its private sector to invest in infrastructural projects that enable further bilateral cooperation. The presence of ONGC in Vietnam is a testament to India’s ability to maintain an economic presence away from its littorals, and it demonstrates how such projects have solidified their relations. The expansion of China’s influence in the region is bound to scale upwards, and it is important that India does not lag too far behind in securing its own security and strategic interests.
Tackling the East Asian giant economically is a mammoth task and arguably an unfeasible endeavour. India’s race against China’s rapidly expanding influence is impeded on two fronts: First, China’s financial and economic power affords it tremendous manoeuvring space in its interactions with Asian countries, and secondly, India’s internal bureaucratic red tape damages its image as a fast-growing country to some extent. The overwhelming bureaucracy existing within India slows and stagnates international deals and agreements, delaying deliveries promised by the government. India cannot match China’s pecuniary superiority at this point in time, but it must find ways to overcome these hurdles.
India could, for example, focus on new forms of public diplomacy through social media outreach and tourism, in order to create a benevolent image, particularly among the region’s smaller countries where it seeks increased cooperation. It should focus on projects in Southeast Asia that not only provide strategic benefits to itself, but also win public approval in those countries through employment and academic exchanges, and Track Two diplomacy.
Most importantly, New Delhi needs to take note of the domestic policy reforms taking place in Indonesia, Malaysia, and New Zealand that are mutually beneficial to its own needs. These changes cited, for example, in the Global Maritime Fulcrum of Indonesia, and in the 2018 defense report of New Zealand, are positioning maritime security and safety at the centre of these countries’ domestic and international interests. Any country that adopts such reforms in the region is of paramount importance to India’s endeavours. Since these reforms pave the way for greater regional cooperation, it allows India to exercise its capabilities beyond its littorals.
Ryan Mitra is an Intern at the Southern Division of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. He is a Bachelor’s Student at Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University-School of Liberal Studies, majoring in International Relations. He has interned with the Research Centre for Eastern and North Eastern Regional Studies-Kolkata. His areas of interest include Indian foreign policy, maritime affairs, nuclear policy, and international law. His recent publications are: “India’s Persian Desire: Analysing India’s maritime trade strategy vis-à-vis the Port of Chabahar,” and “India’s Growing Maritime Opportunities with Indonesia: Room for development in Diplomacy and Capability Building,” both published in the Maritime Affairs Journal (National Maritime Foundation);“India’s Indo-Pacific Strategy: Understanding India’s Spheres of Influence,” in The Sigma Iota Rho (SIR) Journal of International Relations (University of Pennsylvania); “The Marriage of India’s Act East and Indo-Pacific Policy,” and “China in the Maldives: Understanding India’s Security Concerns,” in In the Long Run (blog of the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge).
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Press Release, “Ascendas and China Machinery Engineering Corporation inked strategic industrial / business park collaborative agreement for Asia,” China Machinery Energy Cooperation, November 9, 2015.Also see, https://www.scmp.com/tech/enterprises/article/2153876/southeast-asia-becomes-target-china-technology-companies-tough-nut.
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