Thursday, June 24, 2021

India Deepens Eastward Engagement

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Marking his first set of bilateral visits to the ASEAN region after assuming office, India’s External Affairs Minister, Dr. S. Jaishankar visited Indonesia and Singapore.

 During the first leg of his South-east Asian tour, Dr. Jaishankar held talks with his Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi. Another important rendezvous was his meeting with the Gen (Retd) Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs. The two Ministers discussed greater avenues of cooperation between India’s Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Indonesia’s Aceh Island. Indonesia is a close maritime neighbour of India with the southernmost tip of India less than 90 miles away from Indonesia’s northernmost point. Maritime cooperation between the two leading countries of South and Southeast Asia holds immense importance.

India’s ‘Act East’ Policy and Indonesia’s ‘Global Maritime Fulcrum’ are complementary in nature. Both countries value and promote ASEAN’s centrality and unity. This is particularly significant in the context of promoting the vision and goals of Indo-Pacific as the two countries have been strong proponents of Indo-Pacific and share lot of commonalities in terms of their short to long-term politico-economic and connectivity goals. With the launch of the ASEAN outlook on Indo-Pacific, it seems more likely for countries of the region to achieve the goals of a “free, open, transparent, rules-based, peaceful, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region”, which is not based on aligning against any country.

The External Affairs Minister also met Gen (Retd) H. Wiranto, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal & Security Affairs, and deliberated upon cooperation in defence, security and counterterrorism-related issues. He also called on Indonesian Vice President, Jusuf Kulla.

 The primary objective of the visit was to carry forward the momentum in Indo-Indonesian ties in a wide-range of sectors. This is a logical step given Indonesia’s place in India’s regional engagement as well as long-term foreign policy priorities. Indonesia is India’s second largest trading partner in the region after Singapore. In 2018-19, the bilateral trade stood at US$ 21.12 billion.

New Delhi and Jakarta have elevated their defence and security ties with the inking of “enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement” and “Framework Agreement on Cooperation in the Exploration and Uses of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes” during Prime Minister Modi’s

Indonesia visit in 2018. India and Indonesia are “Comprehensive Strategic Partners” and have been issuing dedicated joint statements on maritime cooperation since 2017.

The two Indian Ocean powers conducted their first naval exercise codenamed “Samudra Shakti” in November 2018 at Surabaya, Indonesia. India is working with Indonesia in developing Jakarta’s deep-sea port at Sabang in Aceh. Sabang is India’s maritime gateway to Southeast Asia and beyond, and may further boost India’s connectivity initiatives in the region.

During his visit to Singapore, Dr. Jaishankar co-chaired the 6th India-Singapore Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) with his counterpart Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan and reviewed the progress of bilateral cooperation under the Singapore-India Strategic Partnership. He called upon Mr. Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, and also met Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.

Dr. Jaishankar also attended the India-Singapore Business & Innovation Summit. During the meeting, he listed out India’s reservations on joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement-the proposed mega free trade agreement including 10 ASEAN member countries and their 6 dialogue partners.

 As Dr. Jaishankar highlighted, Singapore is the fulcrum of India’s engagement with the ASEAN region. Singapore is a major partner in India’s smart city initiatives and has also been a key partner in the trade, finance, and commerce sub-sectors. India’s recent efforts to strengthen financial transparency has been lauded by Singapore which seems keener to work with India in those areas.

There has been a remarkable continuity in India’s ‘Act East’ policy in Prime Minister Modi’s second term. Efforts are being made to give further boost to India’s eastward engagement through regular exchange of goal-oriented visits to key Indo-Pacific countries under the umbrella of Act East Policy. Dr. Jaishankar’s visit is an important component of such efforts.

Script: Dr. Rahul Mishra Strategic Analyst on East & Southeast Asia

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