Asian Editors’ Circle: Dear India, it’s time for you to walk the talk on commerce

By Ravi Velloor, The Straits Times/ANN

India’s Republic Day, celebrated on Jan 26, is the occasion that New Delhi picks to showcase itself to the world. With the country’s love for pomp and ceremony, the parades tend to be dazzling spectacles. Massed bands, marching platoons of Gurkhas and Sikh soldiers, heavy armor and the latest missiles stream in a procession down the former King’s Way, sharing space with floats from various Indian states.

Often, they carry a not-too-subtle message. A tableau from the eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, a region claimed in its entirety by China, is a barely concealed signal to Beijing of who has control. Likewise, the chief guest is carefully chosen: In 1994, when India sought to build its Look East policy, it invited then Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong as guest of honor. Goh’s pre-visit words of intending to “spark a mild India fever” resonated around the world and set the stage for what would eventually turn out to be a tight relationship.

Now, as its Look East policy morphs into what Prime Minister Narendra Modi calls an “Act East Policy,” India is poised to make another hugely symbolic gesture — inviting the heads of state or government of all 10 ASEAN member states to the January event.

In typical Modi fashion, the gesture is a grand one. And filled with meaning, more so since it comes at a time of tense ties with China and New Delhi’s steadily advancing strategic ties with Japan and Vietnam, both with formidable military strength.

Indeed, those in Southeast Asia who are in the habit of peering at crystal balls may ponder whether the Indian army’s recent action in Bhutan — when it went to the aid of the Royal Bhutanese Army to block Chinese soldiers from building a service road in territory claimed by Thimphu — is worth extrapolating in a future context involving the region. India’s southernmost point is in the Nicobar islands of the Andaman Sea, so close to Indonesia’s Banda Aceh on Sumatra island that India is virtually a Southeast Asian state as well.

What’s more, India has latterly embarked upon a policy of beefing up its strategic presence in the Andamans, and in a first for itself, indicated it is open to allowing in a foreign presence on the islands by discussing a small power project with Japan, which had control of the area during World War II.

The Indian Navy is also to start continuous patrolling of the area, indicative of the heightened security sensitivities about the region. In an earlier era, plans for the Indian Air Force to station a squadron of Jaguar fighter bombers on the islands were shelved so as not to alarm Southeast Asian states. Things have clearly changed since China changed the status quo with its assertive policy in the South China Sea.

If evidence were needed about India’s ability to project power in Southeast Asia, it came available more than a decade ago when the Indian Air Force and Navy organized a prompt and massive rendering of humanitarian aid to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the wake of the tsunami that struck these parts in 2004.

“ASEAN has a natural interest in the growing ties between India and Japan,” Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar said in Singapore this week. “Gradually and steadily, Japan has emerged as a special strategic partner with whom India increasingly shares a global agenda.”