Act East, and make the Asian dream flower forth. Animated by India’s growing stakes in the Southeast Asia region, Vice-President Hamid Ansari heads to Thailand and Brunei this week to provide a fresh ballast to the country’s Act East policy and to intensify multifarious relations with two of India’s ASEAN partner countries.
The vice-president’s visit comes amid the geopolitical churn in the region triggered by competing territorial claims over islands and reefs in the South China Sea and the rise of the Islamic State in the region. Against this backdrop, countries in the region are looking at India, the world’s largest democracy and the fastest growing economy, with fresh eyes, both strategically and economically. It’s a mutually symbiotic web of win-win cooperation that will be buttressed and reinforced by the vice-president’s visit to Thailand and Brunei. The visit is an important marker in India’s Look East policy as it signifies vigorous activism by the Modi government to push the bar for India’s variegated relationship with this economically vibrant region.
Brunei calling: What’s in it for India?
Bandar Seri Begawan, the lush green capital of the energy-rich Brunei, will be the first stop of Mr Ansari, the first-ever vice-presidential visit from India to this country since the establishment of diplomatic ties between India and Brunei in May 1984. In Brunei’s capital, the vice-president’s engagements (Feb 1-3) include talks with Crown Prince Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah, an audience with Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, and an address at the University of Brunei Darussalam. Brunei is home to more than 10,000 Indian community, with Indian professionals, specially teachers and doctors carving a special place in their adopted homeland with their hard work and commitment to excellence.
Energy security will be high on the agenda. Currently, India’s imports of oil from Brunei amount to around $935 million. India is planning scale up oil imports from Brunei over the next 2-3 years and is looking to forge a hydrocarbon partnership encompassing both the upstream and the downstream hydrocarbons sector. In addition, India will be discussing proposals for import of gas from Brunei.
Ahead of the visit, Mr Anil Wadhwa, Secretary (east) in India’s external affairs ministry, shared the evolving agenda for the visit and identified hydrocarbons, defence, civil aviation, space, trade and investment, information and communication as key focus areas in India-Brunei relations. “A couple of MoUs that we are expected to sign are related to the field of health and defence cooperation. These are expected to be signed during the visit. It is still work in progress,” he said.
Bonding with Bangkok
In Bangkok, multiple strands of India-ASEAN relations, including economic synergy, defence and security cooperation and cultural connections will be more visible, blending India’s Act East policy with Thailand’s Look West policy. The importance of the trip can be gauged from the fact that this is the first vice presidential visit from India to Thailand after a gap of five decades. Mr Ansari’s official engagements begin immediately after he touches down in Bangkok and heads to the majestic Government House for a grand welcome ceremony, followed by a meeting with Thailand’s Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha. Cultural and intellectual connections will be in focus during Mr Ansari’s meeting with celebrated Sanskrit scholar, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, and his speech at the prestigious Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok on “Look East to Act East,” which will focus on India’s partnership with Thailand and ASEAN.
India’s economic relations with Thailand, the second largest economy in the ASEAN and the Greater Mekong sub-region, are robust, with bilateral trade estimated to be around $9 billion. Thailand ranks No.4 trading partner of India after Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia in ASEAN. The discussions in Thailand are expected to focus on new initiatives to deepen economic relations across the spectrum and highlight new opportunities unleashed by India’s 7 per cent plus growth rate in times of relative global slowdown.
The major focus will be on upscaling investments, which have remained far below potential. FDI from Thailand is less than $400 million. India’s investment in Thailand at around $700 million exceed that of Thailand’s in India. With the Chinese economy slowing down, the export-dependent Thai economy is looking at India afresh as a hub of investment
Intensifying security and counter-terror cooperation will be high on the agenda. The January 14 attacks on Jakarta by the Islamic State has made deepening counter-terror cooperation with ASEAN countries a major priority for India’s security establishment. With more than a million Indian tourists visiting Thailand, hom to picturesque beach resorts of Phuket and Pattaya, India is focusing on intensifying counter-terror cooperation through enhanced intelligence-sharing.
There is a larger strategic and geopolitical context to the vice-president’s visit. Indian officials may like to play down China’s growing influence in its neighbourhood, but China’s growing strategic and defence ties with Thailand, especially after the 2014 coup, can’t be wished away.
The visit by the vice-president to Thailand and Brunei signals a more proactive India stepping up diplomatic outreach in the ASEAN region by leveraging its growing economy and soft power to promote its vital national interests in the region.
(Manish Chand is Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network, www.indiawrites.org, a portal and e-magazine focused on international affairs and the India Story. He is part of the media delegation accompanying Vice-President Hamid Ansari to Thailand and Brunei)
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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