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Raj Kumar Sharma: India responds to China's growing influence in Southeast Asia

Strengthening ties with neighbors is key to curbing Beijing's ambitions

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, center, walks with Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, right, and a Buddhist monk at the Quan Su Buddhist pagoda in Hanoi on Sept. 3, 2016.   © Reuters

China's creeping influence in South Asia is raising eyebrows in India, forcing New Delhi to counter Beijing by bolstering relations with Southeast Asian nations through its Act East policy.

The AEP is an upgrade to the country's Look East policy, which was implemented in 1991 in order to strengthen commercial and cultural ties within Southeast Asia. During the Cold War, India's trade in the region was dismal. As the country opened its economy to the world, the LEP was formulated to safeguard its commercial interests.

Now, with China actively trying to establish itself as the region's hegemon, India hopes that the AEP will advance the gains of the LEP to increase security as well as strategic cooperation between India and her Southeast Asian neighbors.

LURKING TIGER China has been challenging India's primacy in South Asia, mainly by supporting Pakistan. Beijing maintains close military cooperation with Islamabad in the nuclear and missile arenas, disregarding international concerns.

Now, with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor currently underway, Beijing is poised to wield increasing influence over Pakistan. This is bound to further aggravate India's two-front dilemma.

Beijing has also been gradually eroding Indian influence in buffer states like Nepal and Bhutan, aiming to constrain India within South Asia and thwart its rise as a global power. The AEP attempts to mitigate some of these security concerns by deepening India's ties with the nations in China's own neighborhood.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced the AEP during the 2014 East Asia Summit in Myanmar, signaling India's intent to become an active player in the strategically important region.

India hopes to significantly expand the reach of the AEP to other countries, such as Japan, Australia, South Korea and Mongolia, as well as Fiji and other Pacific Island nations. Modi's visits to Japan, Mongolia, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam are evidence of the importance India attaches to the region.

Central to the AEP and its goal of promoting the "three C's" -- culture, commerce and connectivity -- is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. By participating in groups such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, Asia Cooperation Dialogue and Mekong Ganga Cooperation, India continuously engages member nations at the bilateral, regional and multilateral levels.

STRATEGIC TIES AND MORE India is using the AEP to help forge strategic ties, and has already signed partnerships with Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore and ASEAN.

In 2016, India and Japan inked a nuclear deal -- Tokyo's first with a nonsignatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and a measure of Japan's respect for India's nonproliferation performance. This is especially notable since it comes at a time when China is hell-bent on stopping India's membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Japan is also set to supply India with US-2 aircraft, with relations growing at regional levels, too. Both countries are collaborating on Iran's Chabahar port, and are developing the Pacific Indian Ocean Corridor with a special focus on Africa.

A US-2 search and rescue aircraft (Courtesy of Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force)

Additionally, India has shown a willingness to work with the U.S. on its Asia Rebalance strategy. This cooperation was reflected in the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region in 2015.

India's AEP, Japan's Democratic Security Diamond and the Asia Rebalance strategy of the U.S. all share strategic commonalities. Together, they could shape future security arrangements in the Asia-Pacific region.

As regards Australia, India has been busy cementing ties Down Under, signing a nuclear deal with the country in 2014. In 2015, the two countries started their first-ever bilateral naval exercise, AUSINDEX 15. Moreover, Australia identified India as a key defense and security partner in its 2016 Defence White Paper.

India also has a chance to enhance its energy security, as Australia is a top global producer of liquefied natural gas.

India's defense relationship with Vietnam has also grown. In 2016, the two sides upgraded their ties from a strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership. India extended a $500 million credit line to Vietnam to boost its defense preparedness. The country will also train Vietnam's Sukhoi-30 pilots, as New Delhi has decades of experience with Russian military hardware.

MISSILE DEFENSE After joining the Missile Technology Control Regime, India has been contemplating export of the supersonic BrahMos missile, an Indo-Russian joint venture, to Hanoi. This will act as a deterrent to China, with which Vietnam has a maritime dispute.

Given their similar views on regional security and maritime commerce, India, Japan and Vietnam have potential for trilateral cooperation in the region. They could also discuss nontraditional security issues like climate change, cybersecurity, water and food security, etc.

India has been engaging Asia-Pacific nations multilaterally, too. For the first time in its history, the Indian Army hosted, in 2016, one of the largest multinational field training exercises.

Another focus of the AEP is developing India's northeastern states and enhancing their interaction with ASEAN nations through connectivity, people-to-people contacts and trade.

There has been considerable progress implementing the Kaladan Multimodal Project and India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, which is likely to be extended to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Furthermore, India has announced a $1 billion line of credit to promote physical and digital connectivity with its ASEAN members.

India is also upgrading infrastructure and military capabilities at its strategically located Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In early 2016, India deployed two of its most advanced anti-submarine aircraft to these islands to counter frequent incursions by Chinese submarines.

Prime Minister Modi has also used India's Buddhist roots as a form of soft power to connect with Asia-Pacific nations. China intends to challenge India here as well, and hosted World Buddhist Forum gatherings in 2006, 2009 and 2012. However, China's hostile attitude toward Buddhist spiritual leader the Dalai Lama is hampering its efforts.

LIMITATIONS Certain factors could limit the desired outcomes of the AEP. For one, a lack of unity among ASEAN members could hinder India's role in the region, giving China an opening to further its regional agenda. Another is that the U.S. could ask India to play a more robust role as regards regional security, but New Delhi's reluctance to provoke China could fracture India-U.S. strategic convergence.

India needs to fast track the indigenization of its defense program so it can emerge as a major arms supplier. The country is considered a benign power by Southeast Asian nations. They would welcome New Delhi's efforts to counter Beijing, whose presence in South Asia is increasingly suspect.

Raj Kumar Sharma is a research fellow at the United Service Institution of India, New Delhi, and holds a doctorate from Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views expressed here are those of the author.

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