India looks east, but is it ready to act?

India looks east, but is it ready to act?

As Narendra Modi welcomes ASEAN leaders, can he balance non-interventionism with his desire for Indian strategic partnerships with ASEAN? India can still present itself as a credible counterweight to China, but not without embracing international norms of accountability.

Looking east

The 26 January marked India’s 69th Republic Day. New Delhi welcomed all ten heads of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to participate. Indian premier Narendra Modi portrayed it as a coup for his country’s diplomacy, with Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong, Malaysia’s Mohammad Najib Razak, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo and even Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi in attendance as Modi’s guests.

This banner moment is the fruit of India’s “Look East” policy, launched in the early 1990s after decades of non-alignment. Look East marked a significant change in India’s attitude towards Southeast Asia. It has also proven remarkably durable through successive changes of government, perhaps because both sides see the other as an important partner in containing China.

In 2014, Modi took the policy a step further by directing Indian envoys to “Act East”. This means focusing not just on improved economic relations but also on a wider spectrum of co-operation. Act East has seen Modi visit nine of ten ASEAN member states, presaging a proactive strategic role within the region just as Donald Trump abandons the Obama-era “Pivot to Asia”.

In this vacuum, India is not the only regional power picking up the slack. China has successfully stifled progress in the South China Sea thanks to its outsized economic influence over ASEAN. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has all but abandoned Filipino claims in the area in exchange for Chinese economic support. India, by contrast, offered a clear and forthright statement that seemingly reinforced its commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Law Of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the institutions of international law more broadly.

But it will take more than isolated cases or a large Republic Day coterie to prove India is ready for a proactive global role. Modi’s track record in two other crises highlight an enduring reticence to speak out against problematic partners, whether in India’s own neighbourhood or further afield.

Rejecting the Rohingya

While Aung San Suu Kyi visits New Delhi as an honoured guest, many of her countrymen receive a harsher reception. A growing number of Rohingya refugees have fled to India since Myanmar opted for ethnic cleansing in October 2016; India’s response has been to deport those within its borders and ban the rest from entering. Indian border forces have been ordered to use “rude and crude” methods to keep refugees from crossing. The country also refused to endorse a declaration at last year’s World Parliamentary Forum on Sustainable Development because it included an “inappropriate” reference to the Rohingya.

Explanations for this uncharacteristic hostility vary. India has close ties to Myanmar’s government. It is especially dependent on Myanmar for help against secessionist rebels who strike at India from secluded bases in mountainous northern Myanmar. India had nonetheless been a forthright critic of the former junta’s abuses. In a remarkable volte-face, Modi has opted instead for condemning Rohingya “terrorism”.

Domestic politics may also play a role. Modi is a member of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and has a track record of ignoring mob violence against India’s Muslim communities. Opposition parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor has drawn a direct link between Modi’s political stripes and the deportations, saying it “appears to be prompted by the fact that they are primarily Muslims.”

What about the DRC?

Neither regional priorities nor domestic politics explain Modi’s non-response to the crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Despite the distance, India contributes the largest contingent of peacekeepers to the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). At least 17 Indian peacekeepers have died there.

The Congolese government is currently undoing the stability Indian soldiers have fought and died for. President Joseph Kabila’s tenure constitutionally ended in 2016, but elections have been put off and Kabila remains in power. He has engineered a lethal crackdown on the pro-democracy movement demanding his ouster: six people were killed and hundreds detained during protests organised by the Catholic Church on 21 January.

Kabila has also kept the opposition candidate best positioned to replace him, former regional governor Moïse Katumbi, out of the DRC by pressuring the judiciary to convict him on spurious charges. That has not stopped Katumbi from heightening international pressure on Kabila, but it has stopped him from returning home.

India has had little to say about Kabila’s actions. Instead, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj stressed in November that the Modi government enjoys “close and friendly relations” with the DRC. She also discussed lines of credit to the Congolese government, even as other foreign investors are dissuaded by the Kabila government’s rampant corruption and its business partners come under American sanctions.\

Tight grip on a hands-off approach

Though India has a long tradition of humanitarianism, cold geopolitics have apparently trumped idealism. In doing so, is Narendra Modi abandoning one of democratic India’s key advantages over authoritarian China in the struggle over Asia’s balance of power?

If so, there is still time to change course. India’s new “Act East” outlook could well fill the normative vacuum left by the Trump administration as well as the strategic one. India is one of the few regional powers with the economic, military and moral clout to counterbalance Chinese dominance of ASEAN, a challenge that has acquired a renewed sense of urgency with China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. Modi may be ready to indulge in power politics, but neither hard power nor an expanded Republic Day guest list will be enough to keep ASEAN from slowly being drawn into the Chinese orbit.

About Author

Nicholas Leong

Nicholas Leong is currently a trainee advocate & solicitor with Messrs Lai Mun Onn & Co in Singapore. A graduate of the University of Manchester and BPP Law School, he is also effectively bilingual in English and Chinese. Nicholas has long maintained a keen interest in East Asian military history and politics, with particular emphasis on early republican China, the legal and international status of Taiwan, and the impact of China's rise on ASEAN.