India’s enhanced engagement with Southeast Asia

India’s enhanced engagement with Southeast Asia

India’s strategic engagement with Southeast Asia has gathered momentum over the past two decades. Although still largely driven by trade and economics, regional stability and security are increasingly part of India’s regional agenda.  

India’s strategic engagement with Southeast Asia largely began in 1992, with the ‘Look East’ policy. This foreign policy initiative was an important aspect of India’s post-Cold War regional strategy. It represented India’s desire to cultivate economic and strategic relations with regional states, and to determine India’s place in the evolving global economy.  

India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to develop this strategic relationship further. Modi used the 12th ASEAN-India Summit on November 12, 2014 to inform regional states that India’s ‘Look East’ policy had become an ‘Act East’ policy.

Elements of India’s ‘Act East’ policy

There are a number of reasons for India’s enhanced engagement with Southeast Asia.

India hopes to increase connectivity with regional states. This is generally understood in terms of increased infrastructure, ease of transportation and enhanced flows of goods and people.

India is also seeking to expand regional trade. India-ASEAN trade has increased tenfold in the last decade, from $7.5 billion in 2001 to $76.3 billion in 2012. This is something that India wants to continue to increase and benefit from.

In an effort to reduce its reliance on Middle Eastern oil and gas, India is also seeking new energy sources in the region. Of particular interest are gas fields in the South China Sea.

Some steps have already been made in this direction. India’s state-owned oil company, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Ltd, signed an agreement with Vietnam’s PetroVietnam to jointly explore the South China Sea in 2011.

India has also been attempting to join regional institutions, in a bid to enhance diplomatic and strategic engagement with regional states. India is already an ASEAN dialogue partner. It holds a stake in the Asian Development Bank, and is pushing to join the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) organisation.

The importance of regional security

Whilst trade, economics and connectivity are important drivers of India’s enhanced engagement with Southeast Asia, security factors are of increasing importance.

According to a recent report from Rand, the country’s core goals for Southeast Asia can be encapsulated in three basic mission statements.

These are: To maintain regional stability, and prevent regional domination from external powers; to secure maritime lines of communication, and increase connectivity of infrastructure; and to ensure that territorial disputes, such as the South China Sea dispute, are settled peacefully.

It is likely that many of these security concerns are a reaction to China’s increasing regional influence.

According to the Rand report, a number of Indian policymakers believe India has an important role to play as counterweight to potential Chinese dominance in the region.

These feelings are echoed in Southeast Asia. A number of regional states welcome India’s enhanced regional role. India has responded by strengthening ties with certain states, historically believed to be under China’s sphere of influence.

A delicate balancing act

Despite concerns with regards to China’s rise, India wants to avoid taking any action that might lead to conflict.

We can therefore expect India to continue to enhance economic, strategic and security ties with Southeast Asia, whilst avoiding any overt action that might upset China.

As such, it is doubtful that India will enter into any anti-China coalition or alliance, either with regional states or the United States.

Instead, India will advocate a multilateral response to any disputes that might upset regional stability, whilst focusing on increased economic interdependence.

This will be warmly welcomed by the states of Southeast Asia, who can benefit from enhanced integration without upsetting the regional balance.

About Author

Laura Southgate

Dr Laura Southgate is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University in Birmingham, United Kingdom. She has a PhD in International Relations from the University of Otago, New Zealand, and an MA in International Relations and Security, and a BA in Law and Politics, from the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the international relations and security of Southeast Asia.