India Inc India Inc: Thursday, 25 January 2018 12:48

India’s Republic Day: Is a new chapter in Asia’s future being written today?

by Manoj Ladwa

PM Modi’s unprecedented move to invite 10 leaders from ASEAN countries as chief guests marks a significant foreign policy ramp up, writes India Inc. Founder & CEO Manoj Ladwa.

Today is India’s Republic Day. Since Independence, India has invited heads of friendly governments to its annual Republic Day parade. The Presidents of USSR and the US, the Prime Minister of Japan, the King of Saudi Arabia and heads of most SAARC nations have been guests of honour in the past. These are all countries that India was reaching out to for a variety of economic and geo-political reasons.

But many of these visits came when India practised a gentler, ideologically-driven, please-all, offend none Nehruvian foreign policy that focused disproportionately on political correctness and anti-imperialist rhetoric rather than its own enlightened self-interest.

It took Narendra Modi’s ascension to power in 2014 for New Delhi to really start articulating and practising a more pragmatic brand of diplomacy that placed India’s economic, political and strategic interests – without sacrificing the soft-touch, cooperative template of the previous era – above rhetorical flourishes.

In keeping with this new paradigm, Modi has taken the unprecedented step of inviting 10 heads of states and governments, from the 10 ASEAN countries, to be chief guests at this year’s Republic Day parade.

This is the first time that so many world leaders – from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – will be attending the annual Indian show of its military might and cultural diversity.

The Ministry of External Affairs has announced that India and the ASEAN are marking 25 years of dialogue partnership, 15 years of summit-level interaction, and five years of strategic partnership.

A wide range of activities has been planned that will culminate in a summit with the theme of “Shared Values, Common Destiny”. Also on the table are nine bilateral meetings that Modi will hold with these leaders on counter-terrorism, security and connectivity.

What really excites me about this multilateral summit is the potential it has to redefine Asia’s future strategic and economic architecture.

Modi’s foreign policy outreach in India’s immediate neighbourhood and in its extended periphery, in which ASEAN and the Middle East form the two ends, has had a thinly disguised and officially denied goal: create a balance of power with an increasingly aggressive and expansionist China, which has claimed, without any basis in international law, sovereignty over all of South China Sea, as well as dominance in the Indian Ocean Region.

At least four of the 10 ASEAN members – Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines – are directly affected by China’s unsubstantiated claims over their territorial waters. And Vietnam and Singapore have long been urging India to play a more assertive role in the region.

Importantly, New Delhi has upgraded its relationship with ASEAN to a strategic partnership and has, in recent years, sought to deepen its defence and strategic relationship with Vietnam.

Hanoi is keen on acquiring the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile to bolster its defences against China. It is also keen on buying the Akash missile system from India with transfer of technology and local production in that country. Talks are also on for the sale of Varunastra anti-submarine torpedoes to the country former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar described as a “close friend”.

And Hanoi, for its part, is using New Delhi as a counterweight to its large and increasingly belligerent northern neighbour with whom it is involved in a war of nerves over South China Sea, among other disputes.

China is clearly rattled by these close ties. The ‘Global Times’ newspaper, which the Chinese government often uses to disseminate views it cannot air openly, has questioned this relationship several times, even objecting to India setting up a civilian satellite tracking and imaging centre in southern Vietnam. Its wariness is due to the fact that this centre can also be used for tracking Chinese military moves.

There is enough economic ballast in the relationship to justify the new warmth and the upgrade in ties; the strategic aspect – and the possibility of anchoring this relationship with India’s extended neighbourhood within a larger regional geopolitical partnership involving the US, Japan and Australia – gives it an edge and makes China nervous.

As I have written several times in the past, the emerging quadrilateral partnership between the four large democracies in the newly minted Indo-Pacific can become a force for the good in the region.

A meeting last year of the four countries in Manila was the first baby step in what may, or may not, become a formal grouping. For now, it is enough to note that a beginning has been made even if the prospects of this group remain shrouded in uncertainty.  

Meanwhile, at the ongoing two-day summit meeting in New Delhi, Prime Minister Modi will discuss counter-terrorism, security and connectivity with the visiting ASEAN leaders. I feel this is yet another platform that India can leverage to position itself as a powerful partner to and strategic ally for these countries.

The real strategic element of the meeting, I feel, will come at the Leaders’ Retreat, where the 11 heads of states and governments will have free and frank discussions on the theme of the retreat: Maritime Cooperation and Security.

The strategic partnership is obviously aimed at preventing any other Asian power from emerging as the regional hegemon.

I think most unbiased observers will accept that the Modi government has brought about a paradigm shift in India’s foreign policy since 2014. It went several steps beyond the Look East policy of previous governments by renaming its Act East and followed it up with a robust and dynamic action-oriented engagement with Asean and also with Japan and the rest of the Indo-Pacific.

Till about three years ago, it seemed as if India was willing to roll over and concede Asian hegemony to China. But Modi’s foreign policy direction has changed that perception. To be sure, India is till miles behind China on almost all parameters, but as this summit shows, geo-politics is a high stakes long-term game India is showing it has now developed a stomach for.

No doubt, the Indian Opposition leaders and, in particular, Congress President Rahul Gandhi will echo the misgivings of his Communist allies and criticise this initiative as well. Remember: he tweeted the Oxfam report on growing income inequality in India to try and neutralise the feel good factor about India that the Indian Prime Minister’s recent speech at Davos had generated.

I honestly feel we should ignore such carping critics and focus, instead, on the new grounds being broken by Prime Minister Modi.

I wish all my Indian readers a Happy Republic Day, which is a celebration of India’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

Manoj Ladwa is the founder of India Inc. and chief executive of MLS Chase Group @manojladwa

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