Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Asean leaders during the 14th Asean-India Summit in Vientiane, Laos, last year. AFP Photo

COME January, in a significant departure, India prepares to host the heads of all 10 Southeast Asian nations as chief guests on its Republic Day.

This is an outreach to a region the world perceives as China’s “backyard”. For sure, commerce, culture and combating terrorism are all in place. But, in geopolitical terms, China is the principal reason India is “Looking” and “Acting East”.

The urgency needs no stating as Indian and Chinese troops reinforce on the tri-junction in Bhutan amid diplomatic exchanges and a raging media war of words.

India has opened its Asean flank. Before the R-Day, India and Asean are marking 25 years of their dialogue partnership, 15 years of summit-level interaction and five years of strategic partnership.

Several events, both in India and through Indian missions in Asean region, are underway. On the card is a summit on the theme, “Shared Values, Common Destiny”.

The recent “India-Asean Delhi Dialogue IX” has set the tone. As External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj stressed, India shares a common geographical space with Asean and faces common traditional and non-traditional security challenges.

The China factor is clear when India reiterates its stand that “freedom of navigation and respect for international law is, therefore, imperative in this context”.

“Equally, we remain committed with Asean to enhance our maritime cooperation, to realise the full potential of our ocean economy. We will continue to step up cooperation in countering terrorism, piracy and other transnational crimes,” Swaraj had said.

The prism through which India views terrorism has changed, taking in not just its Western neighbourhood, but also reckoning groups active in Southeast Asia.

Financial assistance of US$500,000 (RM2.2 million) was rushed to the Philippines as it battles Islamic State-affiliated terror groups in Marawi city, 800km south of Manila, in the troubled Mindanao province.

Intended for relief and rehabilitation, it is the first time India is sending aid to another country to save itself from terror groups. Swaraj called Philippines’ Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano on July 6, expressing “sympathies and condolences for the tragic loss of life in Marawi city”.

Indian analysts compare the battle between Filipino forces and IS-affiliated groups to “26/11”. This refers to the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, staged from Pakistan, in which 177, including many foreigners, were killed.

India is currently the largest donor. China, Manila’s “new best friend” has sent 15 million pesos (RM1.3 million) in aid.

India has slowly but steadily stepped up defence cooperation with Asean nations, exchanging military officials’ visits, and conducting exercises, training and technology-sharing with Singapore, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

After largely disregarding China’s expanding footprint in Myanmar when the latter was ruled by a military junta, India changed tack after realising the importance of the only Asean country with which it shares land and maritime boundaries.

It has assiduously upgraded diplomatic, economic and military cooperation with Myanmar, apart from prime ministerial (Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi) and other high-level visits to the country.

When the late Indian president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam visited Myanmar, then ruled by the military junta, diplomatic eyebrows were raised. But, political transition and the emergence of a civilian leadership led by Aung San Suu Kyi has changed perspectives.

India ensured the success of Myanmar military chief’s eight-day visit with top-level meetings, visits to defence establishments and a series of banquets. In receiving Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his wife, it appears to have tacitly recognised the role the military, called Tatmadaw, plays in Myanmar’s polity.

Late in the day though, India has cranked up military supplies to Myanmar to counter Chinese inroads into the country.

Delhi already provides 105mm light artillery guns, rocket launchers, rifles, radars, mortars, bailey bridges, communication gear, night-vision devices, war-gaming software and road construction equipment, as well as naval gunboats, sonar, acoustic domes and directing gear. A US$37.9 million deal for supply of lightweight torpedoes was recently finalised.

China’s increasing assertiveness, some would say belligerence, in the way it has handled maritime territorial disputes, particularly in the South China Sea, sparks fear and insecurity in the region. At least four Asean countries — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — are parties to disputes involving Beijing in the South China Sea.

Opening new possibilities in Southeast Asia, Vietnam on July 4 asked India to play a greater role in Asean’s strategic and security affairs.

Speaking at the Delhi Dialogue IX, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said India should support freedom of navigation in the South China Sea on the basis of international law and conventions.

“Asean supports India to play a greater role in the political and security domain, and create a regional rule-based region. We hope India will continue to partner our efforts for strategic security and freedom of navigation in South China Sea on the basis of international law and legal convention,” he said.

“India and Vietnam share political and economic interests. As the future unfolds we have reason to be optimistic. Asean will benefit from India’s experience of resolving maritime issues in a peaceful manner,” he said indicating at the dispute with China in the South China Sea region.

An “outside power” in Asean region, India is as yet cautious in responding to exhortations from Singapore and Vietnam to increase its profile in the region.

However, the message is clear. India will deepen its strategic ties with Vietnam and Japan as it continues to build on its Act East Policy and sheds its status quo instincts for a more activist line that has already seen it come to the humanitarian aid of countries far beyond its shores.

Mahendra Ved, NST’s New Delhi correspondent, is the president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association and a consultant with ‘Power Politics’ magazine. he can be reached via mahendraved07@gmail.com

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