Since coming to power in May this year, the Narendra Modi government has devoted considerable diplomatic energy to strengthening relations with its key East and Southeast Asian partners. With an eye on China, India is beginning to make a concerted effort to carve out a more serious role for itself in the Asia-Pacific. The recent US-India-Japan trilateral will serve to put India’s growing place in the evolving strategic dynamics of the Asia-Pacific back into sharp focus.
The government’s enhanced attention to the Asia-Pacific is reflected in its decision to upgrade India’s longstanding engagement strategy to “Act East”. Though Modi must follow through to demonstrate that this is more than just a rebranding, it signals India’s intention to play a more prominent role in East and Southeast Asia.
At the heart of this effort have been practical partnerships with Japan, Vietnam, Australia and Asean. In part, this outreach is being driven by Indian concerns about China’s presence in the Indian Ocean, and increased assertiveness along their disputed border. In order to balance externally against China’s growing influence among India’s South Asian neighbours, closer engagement with key East and Southeast Asian partners makes sense for India. In addition, Chinese assertiveness on maritime territorial disputes in
East Asia has given India the opportunity to enhance its strategic presence in Southeast Asia. Asean states are increasingly looking to India to play a balancing role in the region. Bilateral partnerships with strategically located states, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, hold particular promise.
Japan will act as the lynchpin of this strategy. India’s ties with Japan have benefited from the close personal connection between Modi and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The two inaugurated a Special Strategic and Global Partnership during Modi’s September visit to Japan, his first outside India’s immediate neighbourhood. As the most advanced Asian naval power, and as a potential source of considerable investment and technological assistance, Japan offers India significant partnership opportunities as it looks to build relationships to its east.
Australia also has a significant role to play in supporting India’s eastward shift. Although Australia-India relations have suffered from inattention in recent years, it appears that both Modi and Prime Minister Tony Abbott are now aware of the opportunities for strengthening the relationship. In his address to the Australian parliament, the first of any Indian PM, Modi outlined his view of Australia “as a major partner in every area of our national priority,” noting that “Australia will no longer be at the periphery, but at the centre of India’s vision.”
The Australia-India relationship has witnessed an unprecedented level of high-level diplomatic attention this year. In September, Abbott was the first foreign leader welcomed to India by Modi. The two leaders met again in a multilateral context at the East Asia Summit in Naypyidaw, and the G-20 Leaders’ Summit in Brisbane. Modi followed the G-20 summit with a full bilateral visit to Australia, the first by an Indian PM in 28 years.
These interactions have resulted in a number of tangible outcomes, not least the conclusion of an Australia-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement. As Lowy Institute Polling has shown, this deal was about more than just economics, and signified the removal of a major source of mistrust in the bilateral relationship.
It seems that there is now a growing alignment in what Australia and India hope to get out of their ties. In recognition of their converging strategic objectives, the two governments concluded a Framework for Security Cooperation in November. There is much potential for greater cooperation between the two Indian Ocean democracies on security, particularly in the maritime domain. This agreement has the potential to add substance to Australia and India’s existing strategic partnership, beginning with joint naval exercises that are slated to begin in 2015.
Should India be able to sustain its enhanced attention to the Asia-Pacific and carefully manage Chinese sensitivities, it has the potential to play a stabilising role throughout the region. The Modi government must move quickly to demonstrate the seriousness of its commitment to the region, which must go beyond what has been pledged by previous governments. Should India be able to do so, it has the potential to assume a more consequential strategic role across the entire Indo-Pacific.
The writer is a research associate in the International Security Programme at the Lowy Institute, Australia