New Delhi: India will complete 25 years of dialogue partnership with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN, a thriving economic bloc, next year. Trade with ASEAN nations is gathering momentum at over 76 billion annually and is expected to gather steam in the coming year. ASEAN is however, not just trading group, regional security is also an important aspect of the partnership. It is here that India needs to do so much more. ASEAN is looking for greater Indian maritime presence in the region. Here, India has been somewhat lax but under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is ready to do its part. The Indian Navy is now preparing to project its presence not just in the Indian Ocean, but beyond to the Pacific and the Gulf of Aden. The Navy is in the process of modernizing and adding to its fleet.
ASEAN nations gain from trade with China but worried about its aggressive claims
Though ASEAN has gained tremendously by trading with China, the smaller nations are increasingly worried about China’s overpowering presence in the region. China is not just an economic power but also a formidable military power now. Beijing has territorial disputes with Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, and is ready to use its muscle power to get its way. This is making much of Asia nervous. Even countries that have no territorial disputes with China, are wary of conflicts which could disturb the free flow of goods in the Pacific. Trade flowing through the Asia Pacific sea lanes amounts to over five trillion dollars annually and is likely to increase in future.
ASEAN nations have been privately urging New Delhi to do so for several years. Delhi under the UPA did take a few steps, especially with Vietnam, but backed off from doing more. Moreover, the second term of the UPA government was spent on domestic firefighting with little time for anything else. Now, as India is in the process of building up its naval capabilities, it is also willing to play a much larger role in the region, nor is the NDA shy of having closer defence ties with the US. The signing of the logistics agreement is the first step towards a closer relationship. And more are in the works. In fact, it was during President George Bush’s tenure that Washington began thinking of promoting India to balance out China in the Asia-Pacific region. The Obama administration followed Bush in this.
The Indian Navy today is much more active. India’s maritime diplomacy has taken off in a major way. Since last September, naval ships have visited 50 ports across Europe, Asia and Africa. Among the countries in Europe were UK, France, Italy, Spain, in West Asia and North Africa, it was Turkey, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Seychelles as well as Iran in the Persian Gulf and Saudi Arabia, UAE, China, Japan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Vietnam, Cambodia. India has also held bilateral exercises with 10 countries in the last year.
What worries China most is India’s maritime cooperation with the US. India-US-Japan now conduct joint naval exercises. Japan. which was kept out after Chinese protests, will now be a permanent invitee. New Delhi is also keen to build defense ties with its ocean neighbors. The Prime Minister’s visit to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka in July 2015 was part of that effort. India also sold a war ship, Barracudda, to Seychelles in 2014. While the UPA government was over cautious in asserting India’s maritime presence, the Modi government is ready to take on a greater responsibility for itself in the neighborhood. Asian nations have privately been asking India to be a part of the future defense architecture of the Asia-Pacific region. While agreeing in principle, the UPA had not got down to acting on its commitments. With Modi it is clear that India will want to play a larger role, not just in its vicinity but beyond.