New Delhi and its partners are inching together to balance Beijing’s aggressive posture.
The moment has been long in coming, but India is turning into a strategic actor in Southeast Asia. Amid a flurry of regional diplomacy, India has sealed an arms deal with Vietnam, sided with the Philippines over China on sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, and enhanced defense cooperation with Indonesia. It is balance-of-power politics worthy of an international relations textbook: Even though most Southeast Asian governments have long made it their mantra not to choose geopolitical sides, China’s aggressive posture in and around the South China Sea is driving India and its partners in the region together. As yet, none of these relationships are on the level of alliances or include a serious force deployment component, but the trend is clear. And even though the United States and its Asian treaty allies are not involved, India’s moves raise the tantalizing possibility that it will increasingly complement the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy to counter China in the coming years.
India’s strategic outreach had its humble beginnings in 1991, when New Delhi announced the Look East policy—a recognition of the geostrategic significance of Southeast Asia to Indian security. More a vision than a concrete set of measures, Look East was followed by the Act East policy in 2014, when India began to proactively engage with the region to prevent it from succumbing to Chinese domination. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who first announced Act East, India in recent years has steadily strengthened key partnerships across Southeast Asia, particularly with countries along the maritime rim of the Indo-Pacific. These moves are clearly designed to cooperate with Southeast Asian partners who also seek to maintain the rules-based international order and norms of behavior in the face of rising Chinese assertiveness in the region.
Last month, Vietnamese Defense Minister Phan Van Giang visited his Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh, in New Delhi and announced that India would transfer a missile corvette to the Vietnamese Navy to enhance maritime security. The two sides also reportedly discussed stepped-up training for Vietnamese military personnel operating submarines and fighter jets, as well as cooperation on cybersecurity and electronic warfare. There is also ongoing speculation that Vietnam may soon purchase India’s BrahMos cruise missile, which is co-produced with Russia and could complicate Chinese military operations in disputed seas. To strengthen relations further, Hanoi and New Delhi have also been considering a potential trade deal.
These recent moves reinforce the “comprehensive strategic partnership” India and Vietnam have maintained since Modi’s 2016 visit to Vietnam. Hanoi maintains just four partnerships at this highest of levels—with China, India, Russia, and most recently South Korea. That underscores the high strategic value Hanoi places on New Delhi. By comparison, the United States is only a “comprehensive partner” for Vietnam, two levels below India’s status. Washington has struggled to raise the partnership.
The Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, is steadily expanding and deepening its security partnership with India as well. Late last month, Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo visited New Delhi and met with his Indian counterpart, S. Jaishankar. For the first time, India recognized the legitimacy of the 2016 arbitration ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in favor of Philippine sovereignty claims over China in the South China Sea. During the meeting, Jaishankar reiterated India’s call on China to respect this ruling. Both sides further vowed to enhance their defense partnership through increased interactions between defense agencies and by sending an Indian defense attaché to Manila. India also offered a concessional line of credit to the Philippines to buy Indian defense equipment. According to a diplomatic source close to the negotiations, “We are both maritime nations and there is great scope where we could identify various cooperative activities including, in the future, joint sales and joint patrols and exchanging information, best practices and anything to enhance [maritime domain awareness].”
Both nations have closely collaborated on security matters in recent years. In 2019, for example, India participated in a joint naval drill in the South China Sea with Japan, the Philippines, and the United States. In 2021, the Indian Navy conducted bilateral drills with the Philippines. In addition, a fourth round of high-level defense dialogue between India and the Philippines concluded in April, with the two sides pledging to deepen defense cooperation further. In 2022, the Philippines inked a major deal to purchase India’s BrahMos missiles. According to the Indian ambassador in Manila, India is exploring a preferential trade deal with the Philippines to boost their relationship, similar to what it is discussing with Vietnam.
Meanwhile, India’s security partnership with Indonesia has quietly been evolving in ways that also support the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. In February, an Indian Kilo-class conventional submarine made a first-ever port call to Indonesia, underscoring that New Delhi’s undersea assets could have access to Indonesian ports sitting astride the strategic waterways traversing the vast archipelagic nation. Beijing already faces a major strategic headache in the form of the so-called Malacca dilemma—China’s vulnerability to having its most important trade route cut off by the United States and its allies in the narrow waters between Singapore and Malaysia. Add potential blockades of Indonesia’s Sunda Strait and Lombok Strait—two other strategic narrows—and China might have to rethink future military operations entirely.
Indo-Indonesian defense relations truly kicked off in 2018, when Modi visited Jakarta and elevated relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership. As part of this, the two nations signed a new defense cooperation agreement. That same year, India and Indonesia launched a new naval exercise, Samudra Shakti, that incorporated a warfighting component. Since then, the two navies have conducted four rounds, the last of which was in May and prioritized anti-submarine operations. The Indian Navy has further supported Indonesia with humanitarian and disaster relief operations, particularly following the Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami that hit Palu in 2018. New Delhi and Jakarta are exploring potential air force cooperation as well. Indonesia may also follow in the footsteps of the Philippines by purchasing BrahMos missiles.
On the economic side, the two nations are considering a preferential trade agreement, similar to what India is discussing with Vietnam and the Philippines. Other plans include enhancing links between Indonesia’s Aceh province and India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These parts of the two countries are separated by just over 500 miles of sea, and Jakarta and New Delhi have been cooperating to boost trade and travel between them. India and Indonesia are also cooperating on developing infrastructure, such as a port at Sabang in Aceh, which could be viewed as India’s rival to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
India is also cooperating with Malaysia, another counterclaimant against China in the South China Sea, on the basis of an enhanced strategic partnership signed in 2015. In 2022, both Jaishankar and Singh met their Malaysian counterparts and expressed interest in deepening their partnership. After his meeting with Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin bin Hussein, Singh described the engagement as “wonderful.” Although Kuala Lumpur’s decision earlier this year to cancel a deal to purchase Indian-made Tejas fighter aircraft may have dampened the partnership somewhat, the intent clearly remains to strengthen ties in line with upholding the mutual goal of maintaining the rules-based international order in the region—especially internationally recognized maritime borders and freedom of navigation, neither of which Beijing accepts. When Jaishankar met then-Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah, the latter emphasized that India is a friend who shares the “ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific,” using the acronym for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Source : Foreign Policy