Wednesday, April 5, 2017

ASEAN reminder for Modi

 Pankaj Sharma
2 April 2017
New Delhi 

Over the past two years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought a new and more action-oriented policy towards the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in particular, and East Asia in general. Despite his attempts across international forums, results have not been forthcoming. There is a growing feeling in the corridors of diplomacy that in order to emerge as a big player in the Asian region, India must expedite its efforts to increase trade with the rest of Asia, especially with South East Asian countries. Much of India's economic health is driven by domestic production and consumption, instead of extensive trade. China, on the other hand, trades very heavily with the rest of Asia. Modi's 'Look East' policy, therefore, needs to be implemented through vigorous trade and exchange in newer and strategically important areas. Prime Minister Modi has reaffirmed his commitment to this policy from time to time by expressing India's intentions to build links with countries in the region. But there are no visible signs that India has created a benign presence in the whole of South East Asia. Towards building a stronger economic and political presence in ASEAN nations, India should seek active support of Singapore which has shown its keenness on facilitating such a move. Singapore has always been supportive of India's quest to become an influential player in the international community. It is evident from the fact that India's candidature for the United Nations Security Council has always found favour from Singaporean leaders in the recent past. Singapore and India can make great partners as each is the answer to other's vital economic and political needs. As a result of India's decade-old active relationship with Singapore, especially after the period of 'India fever', Indian companies now form the single largest business community in the island nation. Singaporean companies have also recognised the opportunities in India and are participating very actively in the areas of manufacturing, urban solutions, and consumerism. India has as much, if not more, to gain from this relationship. Singapore's competence in management know-how, its experience in public housing, urban development, mass rapid transit, and airport management has proved beneficial to us. Modi must leave no stone unturned to exploit Singapore's strategic position on East-West route in the mutual interest of both the countries. About 80 per cent of the world's maritime trade between east and west passes through the Straits of Malacca. This is the main shipping channel between Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. Major Asian economies are linked to this route. Singapore is on the southern tip of the South China Sea that sees an annual trade traffic of US $5 trillion. The island nation is the regional oil hub that handles more than 600 billion USD tankers traffic. India must realise before it is too late that China's aggressive investments in ports and rail links in Malaysia will change economic dynamics for Singapore in coming years and therefore, it becomes more compelling for us to take the steps required to strengthen the relations between the two countries. The belt road projects in Malaysia are part of China's design to expand the exports of its over-capacity in the name of helping the less developed nations to build their infrastructure. Singapore has excellent connectivity to 600 ports. But it will not be easy for the island republic to maintain its tag of world's busiest trans-shipment hub if business shifts to Malaysian ports. China, being currently the biggest trading partner of Singapore, knows how to twist arms and global economic slowdown is also waiting in the wings to play its negative role. If India does not play its constructive role in the region at a time when Singaporeans are living with a growing feeling about China's deliberate move to isolate their country, we will be failing in our primary responsibility in promoting an atmosphere that creates a level playing field. How can the tricks to punishing any country for expressing its opinions on the issues related to the South China Sea or 'one-China' policy be ignored by the world community as well as the major economies like India?  Let no one miss the fact that in the current scenario, Singapore has the advantage of being a global financial centre, has the vast experience in providing a whole range of maritime services and has become the choice for world's big corporations. Therefore, it would be underestimating the country if one thinks that replacing Singapore would be easy. This is the time when Singapore must focus on trading with countries with which it enjoys sound frequencies. India must reinforce its whole-hearted support to Singapore in facing the new challenges. Singapore has one of the best financial systems in the world. The country has bought many ports in the world. All this makes Singapore resilient. Singaporeans expect India to pay more attention to the region. Singapore has been an important facilitator in India's growing engagement in Southeast Asia. Singaporeans see India as a power big enough to help balance China's influence. Even if there was no presence of 10 per cent of the ethnic Indians in the population of the city-state, India has a historical responsibility to support Singapore. There are territories in Malaysia also that have more than 15 per cent of the Indian population. Ignoring India's national interests in the region, therefore, can boomerang on Indian interests after a decade. I recall Prime Minister Modi saying during the ASEAN summit held in November 2015 that most of the ASEAN economies have done their bit for Asia's resurgence and now it is India's turn. Modi had assured, "We know our time has come". Then he gave assurance in September 2016 that he dedicates himself for the "shared values and common destiny" of the ASEAN nations. He then said, "We have begun institutional and structured reforms in agriculture, housing, transport, financial inclusion and investments….We have launched a 'Housing for All' program, which involves 20 million urban houses and 30 million rural houses…. Our aim is not merely to reform, but to transform." Prime Minister Modi should not delay what he had vouched for to ASEAN and take appropriate steps to thicken India's ties in the region. 

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