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Relook at India’s Act East Policy

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May 26, 2021

What is the issue?

Despite the best intentions of an Act East Policy, India’s standing and image in Southeast Asia have suffered.

What is the present scenario?

  • Three developments over the past five years are testing Indian diplomacy in the region:
  1. the rising profile of China combined with growing China-India tensions
  2. disappointment in the region with India’s economic under-performance
  3. rising concern in the region with India’s approach towards its minorities, especially Muslims and Christians

What does a rising China mean?

  • China’s rise and growing assertiveness of the Xi Jinping regime initially generated a strong pro-India sentiment in the South-east Asian region.
  • Many ASEAN countries wanted India to balance China’s enhanced power.
  • But, India’s economic slowdown and inward orientation (decision to stay out of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement) disappointed regional business.
  • ASEAN and Indian governments tried to maintain good relations.
  • But Southeast Asia’s powerful business groups, mostly ethnic Chinese, began losing interest in India.
  • However, as recently as 2017, during the Doklam stand-off between China and India, many ASEAN governments conveyed their quiet support for India.
  • This was in the hope that a robust response from India would keep China’s geopolitical ambitions in the region under check.
  • But between Doklam and Galwan tensions, there has been a change in the Southeast Asian assessment of China and India.
  • It could be due to a willingness to accommodate Chinese interests, a growing admiration for China’s assertion of power within the ethnic Chinese community in the region.
  • Or, it could be due to a disappointment with India.

How have civil society attitudes changed?

  • Ethnic Chinese loyalties define one segment of Southeast Asian civil society.
  • And Islamic faith defines another large segment.
  • In most ASEAN countries, ethnic Chinese practise Islam, Buddhism or Christianity.
  • Given this, growing concern on Hindu majoritarianism in India has impacted civil society attitudes in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore.
  • India deployed the soft power of “Buddhist diplomacy.”
  • But, Southeast Asian states and civil society seem less impressed by Indian hard and soft power even as their fear and/or admiration of China has gone up.
  • [India was successful till a few years ago in holding China’s rising hard power back with its own hard and soft power.]
  • Both China’s direct influence and that of ethnic Chinese in the South Asian region are on the rise.

What is the larger impact?

  • All the above developments weakened the business-to-business (B2B) and people-to-people (P2P) connect between India and ASEAN.
  • This was despite the best efforts of hard-pressed diplomats to maintain good government-to-government (G2G) relations.

What is the way forward?

  • Indian diplomacy must take a fresh look at its Act East policy.
  • The constraints being imposed on it by unsatisfactory economic performance and sectarian and communal politics at home should be looked into.

 

Source: The Indian Express

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