Editorial Articles

Volume-34, 24-30 November, 2018



PM MODI'S Singapore Visit

Focus on india's 'act east policy'


Dr. Raghubansh Sinha


India's deepening ties with its extended neighbourhood as part of its Act East Policy was in focus during Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi's two-day visit to Singapore to attend the summit level meetings of East Asia, Asean-India and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

The Prime Minister underlined India's vision for an enhanced multilateral cooperation with the 10-member Asean grouping while calling for an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region during the 13th East Asia Summit. Delivering the keynote address at the Singapore Fintech Festival (SFF), he highlighted the ongoing historic transition in the global economy due to unprecedented revolution in technology and innovation, which was now increasingly defining competitiveness and power in the new world.

The Prime Minister also exchanged views on bilateral, regional and global issues with US vice-president Mike Pence, and his counterparts from Singapore, Thailand and Australia.


Meeting Asean leaders during India-Asean Informal Summit, the Prime Minister reaffirmed India's commitment to deepen economic and strategic relations with the economic grouping, which is India's fourth largest trading partner, with two way trade touching over US $ 81.33 billion.

Connectivity, sustainable development, counter-terrorism, and maritime and cyber security are among the key areas of cooperation with Asean under India's Act East Policy. It includes the development of its Northeast states by boosting connectivity with Asean and sub-regional grouping of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec). Made up of seven nations lying in the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay

of Bengal -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, Bimstec is the new springboard for India's engagement with the extended neighbourhood in Southeast Asia under its Neighbourhood First Policy via northeastern India.

Using centuries-old civilisational linkages to realise the inherent immense economic potential in the relationship, India has now added strategic importance to ties with Asean and other countries of the region. Relations with Asean have grown since India became its Sectoral-level partner in 1992, an event which coincided with India's economic reform process.

In the past two decades, India-Asean relationship has become the foundation of India's Act East Policy. Based on India's search for economic space following the dramatic transformation in world political and geo-strategic scenario in early 1990s -after the collapse of Soviet Union -India's 'Look East Policy' has today matured into a dynamic and action-oriented 'Act East Policy.

Over the last decade, India has taken several policy initiatives to deepen its economic engagement with Asean-centric processes such as East Asia Summit, BIMSTEC, Indian-Ocean Rim Association and Mekong-Ganga Cooperation at the sub-regional level.

The deepening relationship was symbolized in the year-long celebration to mark Asean-India 25 years of dialogue partnership, 15 years of summit level interaction and five years of strategic partnership. It culminated with all 10 ASEAN leaders attending the 69th Republic Day Parade in an unprecedented gesture.


India's participation in the East Asia Summit is a natural corollary of its growing multi-faceted engagement with Asean and common desire for enhancing economic and security cooperation in East Asia. Prime Minister Modi attended the 13th East Asia Summit, an important forum in the Indo-Pacific region comprising the 10 Asean member states -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam - and its eight dialogue partners -- India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Russia.

Earlier this year in June, Prime Minister Mr. Modi had forcefully outlined India's vision of the Indo-Pacific during his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. He used the East Asia Summit in Singapore to further build upon the theme. He stressed on the centrality of Asean's role for peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region, which extends from the eastern coast of Africa to the eastern coast of Japan.

He underlined the need for rules-based order that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations, ensures freedom of navigation and overflight as well as unimpeded lawful commerce, and seeks peaceful resolution of disputes with full respect for legal and diplomatic processes in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law, without resorting to threat or use of force.

Growing tension in South East Asia as a result of competing territorial claims to islands in the South China Sea has sparked concern that it could lead to unintended military conflict. Several experts predict an escalation in tension especially after China has aggressively undertaken infrastructure construction and military bases on several disputed islets and reefs in South China Sea.

China is embroiled in disputes over the Scarborough Shoal with the Philippines, and over the Spratly islands with Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. Conveniently, China now calls for framing of a 'code of conduct' in a bid to play down the simmering differences with its neighbours.


Concern over China's unilateralism and aggressive behavior is shared by several nations in the region and beyond. In the past several months, China's neighbours and members of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad -comprising India, the US, Japan, and Australia, have expressed concern over China's "predatory" chequebook diplomacy" which threatens to push nations into debt-trap and upset geo-strategic power balance around the world in the name of creating infrastructure projects.

First mooted by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2007, the idea of the grouping of the four "like-minded" democracies was put on the back-burner after protests by China which sees Quad as a partnership aimed at stifling the communist nations growth and influence.

Officials of the Quad held consultations in Singapore on the sideline of the East Asia Summit. Though India has been reluctant to highlight the military cooperation, other members of the Quad, particularly US and Japan, have been upfront about its agenda to prevent China dominating Indo-Pacific region through use of force.

Reports have suggested that the four nation partnership discussed regional and global issues of common interest, including the situation in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.Though peaceful political transition seems imminent in Maldives when President-elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih is sworn in on November 17, India has been concerned with signs of instability in both these South Asian neighbours, where China has increased its influence in the last decade.

Media reports suggested that the discussions focused on cooperation in areas such as "connectivity, sustainable development, counter-terrorism, non-proliferation and maritime and cyber security, with a view to promoting peace, stability and prosperity in an increasingly inter-connected Indo-Pacific region that the four countries share with each other and with other partners".


Failure to make progress in negotiations in the services-sector has been a big disappointment for India. Underlining the importance of "comprehensive, balanced and mutually beneficial" economic engagement, Prime Minister Mr. Modi highlighted the need for an early conclusion of RCEP agreement.

While acknowledging the progress made in negotiations on market access for goods, India underlined the need for similar results in the services-sector which constitute more than 50 per cent of the GDP of most of the RCEP countries, and is likely to play a key role in future global economic activities.

Unable to conclude the pact in Singapore, negotiators have now put a 2019 deadline for the RCEP, which is a proposed free-trade agreement between Asean and six Asia-Pacific states with which the regional bloc has existing Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) -- namely China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand,

The RCEP, which is being negotiated since 2012, seeks to bring almost half of the world's population, 40 per cent of world trade and more than a third of global GDP under the umbrella of a single trade zone.

Thailand, which takes over the presidency of Asean from Singapore, faces a big challenge of concluding the RCEP negotiations.


India's bilateral relations with the US were in focus when Prime Minister Mr. Modi and US Vice-President Pence met on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit. India and the US discussed their roles in Indo-Pacific region and cooperation in defence and trade sectors, amid simmering differences over New Delhi's oil import from Tehran and purchase of S-400 Triumf missile system from Russia.

Expanding bilateral trade and energy cooperation also came up as India plans to increase oil and gas import from the US which is expected "to be valued about $4 billion this year".

Facing common threat of terrorism, the two leaders expressed concern over the mainstreaming of people involved in 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, a reference to Pakistani mastermind Hafiz Saeed's party contesting the general elections in Pakistan in July.

The Trump administration has repeatedly hauled up Pakistan for not doing enough to combat terrorism both in its country and the neighborhood. "The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!" Trump had written in his first tweet of 2018.


The Prime Minister showcased India as one of the top nations in fintech adoption. Highlighting the importance of cybersecurity for safe and secure online transactions at the Singapore Fintech Festival, Modi launched APIX, or API Exchange, a global platform to connect fintech firms and financial institutions, beginning with Asean and Indian banks and fintech companies.

"To begin with financial inclusion has become a reality for 1.3 billion Indians. We have generated more than 1.2 billion biometric identities -- called Aadhaar or foundation -- in just a few years," Mr. Modi said at the world's largest financial technology festival, which was launched in 2016. India set up a pavilion with the highest number of companies at the exhibition.


Modi attended the "Grande Finale" of the first-ever India-Singapore Hackathon, a platform expected to boost technology, innovation and youth power. The Indian leader presented awards to the six winnings teams-- three each from India and Singapore. Teams from Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur (IIT Kharagpur), National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli (NIT Trichy) and MIT College of Engineering, Pune, were the Indian winners.

Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) were among the winning teams from Singapore.

Quite clearly, India is determined to deepen its economic and security engagements with the Asean regional bloc under New Delhi's Act East Policy which dictates "a free open and inclusive" Indo-Pacific. Centrality of trade and investment, connectivity, sustainable development, maritime and cyber security and counter-terrorism are the key pillars of engagement with the extended neighbourhood in Southeast Asia under India's Neighbourhood First Policy.

(The author is a Senior  Journalist & Expert on International Affairs, Email: raghubansh@hotmail. com) Views expressed are personal.