India’s Act East policy will be in focus during the visit of Vice-President Hamid Ansari to Thailand and Brunei (February 1-5). The visit is expected to deepen and diversify India’s economic and strategic ties with the two ASEAN countries.
In an exclusive interview with Sridhar Ramaswamy of India Writes Network, Rajiv Bhatia, a former ambassador of India to Myanmar, author and writer on foreign policy issues, speaks about likely issues on the agenda during the vice-president’s visit to Thailand and Brunei. Mr Bhatia, the author of “India-Myanmar relations: Changing Contours” and a former chief of Indian Council of World Affairs, is upbeat about the trajectory of India-ASEAN relations and its future potential. Mr Bhatia is presently Distinguished Fellow at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai.
(Excerpts from the interview)
Q. How do you look at the visit of Vice President Hamid Ansari to Brunei and Thailand? What will be key issues on the agenda? What outcomes can we expect?
A. This is a significant initiative taken by India. The basic purpose of the visit is to reach out to these important Southeast Asian countries. One can note that with this visit by the vice-president, all member states of the 10-nation ASEAN bloc would have been covered by high level visits between the President, Vice President and Prime Minister except the Philippines since May 2014. This indicates the concentrated activism of India’s diplomacy in the region. During the Vice President’s visit to Indonesia, he could not visit Brunei as scheduled due to logistical reasons.
In Thailand the focus would be on cultural cooperation, connectivity. In Brunei, which is a smaller country, the dialogue will cover all aspects of bilateral relationship.
When the Vice President is in Thailand, my personal view is that there could be a discussion on Myanmar, which is a neighbour to both countries. There are important changes taking place in this crucial ASEAN country. The Indian visitors would come back enlightened.
Q. How do you look at the trajectory of India-ASEAN relations in recent months? Which areas have seen visible progress?
A. Two or three things can be factored in here. First, political understanding has deepened. Second, the focus by India on CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam) countries. Third, the Indian government’s initiative to pledge additional funding for connectivity projects. On the CLMV countries, there is an initiative called Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for supporting entrepreneurial projects between India and CLMV countries.
Q. How has India’s ‘Act East Policy’ progressed under the Modi government?
A. Under the present government, ASEAN will continue being the central focus of India’s Act East policy. India is also showing deepening activism by expanding cooperation with members of the ASEAN+6 countries particularly Japan, Australia, US and South Korea.
Along with economic cooperation, strategic cooperation in areas of defence, security and counter-terrorism is also deepening.
Q. Speaking of counter-terrorism, with the rise of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia, how do you see India enhancing cooperation in this area with ASEAN countries?
A. There is a perception in India that we have to increase cooperation at the level of exchange of intelligence sharing and learning through best practices. With respect to ideology, de-radicalisation has to be handled with care and responsibly. India does not believe that there are good terrorists and bad terrorists.
Q. What steps are India taking to expand security cooperation with Thailand and Brunei as well as ASEAN?
A. With Thailand and Brunei we will have to wait for the results of the visit. Certain progress has been with countries such as Indonesia and Australia during the earlier visits of Indian leaders to these countries. The results show cooperation is increasing gradually in accordance with agreements that were signed.
Q. How do you see the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations progressing? Is India having enough say in these negotiations?
A. RCEP is progressing gradually. The agreed deadline to conclude the negotiations is the end of 2016. There is a variable degree of enthusiasm. Some countries want it to move faster than it is happening at the moment. India has to strike a balance between regional integration and Indian business industry. At this stage, I am optimistic.
Q. Some Southeast Asian countries have tended to blame India for blocking progress in RCEP. What’s their grudge? What’s the way out?
A. I am aware of such views of the ASEAN countries, and even some people in India may also have that view. But as I said, New Delhi has to balance internal and external factors. India is open to the flow of foreign technology and investments. To enhance initiatives such as ‘Make in India’, the government has to proceed with a degree of commitment and prudence.
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