Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has a job in New Delhi that many people would fancy, yet in his current state and the on-going trend of crisis after crisis being faced by the UPA, it is not entirely surprising that he can only manage a smile whenever he is travelling abroad, away from Delhi, the UPA and all the Cirque du Soleils’ in between as he arrived in Cambodia for the ASEAN summit.
It took India a fair while after the Sino-Indian war of 1962 to understand and act on the importance of its relations with East and South East Asia. The ‘Look East’ policy was initiated in 1991 as an apolitical Singh was made Finance Minister by then newly elected Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao. Since then even the BJP-lead government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee embraced the policy until Dr Singh finally became the Prime Minister in 2004.
However, the dynamics of engaging with South East Asia, particularly Myanmar, which was internationally isolated for much of the past two decades, changed when US President Barack Obama also ideated his own Asia policy, giving it more importance than any other in efforts to counter China in the region. This new American stand today gives Indo-US ties a new bridge to work on, taking into account that both sides are willing enough to do so.
Now, as Dr Singh talks further cooperation and trade liberalism with South East Asia, experts in the region are labelling Indian foreign policy too slow as issues such as the South China Sea impasse between countries such as Vietnam and Philippines taking on China remaining hotly contested topics. It has taken India two decades to make some proper non-superficial movements into the region, not just economically, but politically as well. Delhi’s embrace of the Burmese Junta leadership in 2011 with giving the country a further $500 million credit line along with signing a host of trade and energy agreements was seen as a positive step to counter China’s ever-growing presence. However, due to this, India looked to have taken an ignorant stand over the Rohingya massacres in Burma, even as ASEAN called for a stop on the atrocities believed to have been committed by the Burmese military.
Some analysts are skeptical about India’s influence and prowess in the region. In a recent report by an Indian daily, Jakarta-based regional expert Kavi Chongkittavorn said that the region needs India now and not ten years later and that the “centrality” of ASEAN was at risk (from Chinese influence).
China has strong pockets of influence within ASEAN and has the ability to significantly sway opinions along with its ally Cambodia. Cambodia is a neighbour of Vietnam, with Vietnam having strongly protested Chinese intrusion over its right to operate in South China Sea, an area known to be rich in oil and natural gas. India and China have also entered into a row over this dispute and last month, Dr Singh told Beijing that India will go ahead with oil and gas exploration activities in that region. This topic, however, has not been discussed by either country during the current summit yet.
Manmohan Singh is a smart, but an accidental bureaucrat. His interest in foreign policy is immense, which was shown by the placement of a ‘weak’ Foreign Minister in SM Krishna. However, even as India has achieved acceptable strides in its foreign policy initiatives in recent past, the new dynamics with focus on China and engaging with ASEAN and the US to balance the shift of power of the region will be crucial for the future security of the country.
(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)