The 15th ASEAN summit at Manila marks a significant advance of India's 'Act East' approach that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced in December 2015 as a more meaningful version of the earlier 'Look East' component of our foreign policy. It is remarkable how the present Prime Minister has - in a short period of time - taken India to the position of a recognised regional power in this part of the globe by pushing the country's friendly relationships beyond our eastern neighbourhood to include the nations of South East Asia and those further up in the Indo- Pacific stretch. Manila hosted the ASEAN meet as well as the East Asia summit and facilitated an extensive interaction between Modi and President Trump for a decisive exchange of notes on counter- terrorism, trade and the security situation in the entire region. The two leaders put their stamp on the common strategy for Indo-Pacific as worked out in the meeting of the officials that placed emphasis on peace and stability ‘in an increasingly interconnected’ Indo-Pacific region - in the long term interests of all concerned countries and of the world at large.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the ASEAN summit is that it has concretised the move towards a quadrilateral grouping of US, India, Japan and Australia - since described as the Quad in diplomatic and security circles - that is now largely perceived as the response of the democratic world to the geo-political assertiveness lately shown by China in what Beijing preferred to describe as the 'Asia- Pacific' region. Modi government has to be complemented for the smoothness with which it has made 'Act East' policy an instrument for enlarging mutually beneficial bilateral relations into multi-lateral arrangements - all in persuasion of the unchanged national objective of serving India's economic and security interests. It is a measure of the clarity on global commons shown by Modi in his foreign policy initiatives that India is succeeding - as an equal partner - in forging a geo- strategic infrastructure as also the cooperative moves with other major democratic powers to counter the threat posed by China to the countries of the Indo- Pacific including India.
Prime Minister Modi has boosted our national pride by combining India's desire for peace and unfettered development with the nation's willingness to play the role of a regional power. At the Raisina Dialogue held in January this year he had enunciated that 'our economic and political rise represents a regional and global opportunity of great significance. It is a force for peace, a factor for stability and an engine for regional and global prosperity'. He visualised a path of international engagement focused on rebuilding connectivity, restoring bridges and rejoining India with our immediate and extended geographies that would shape relationships for advancing India's economic priorities.
Showing a rare grasp of strategy Modi has, along with 'Act East', steered an effective policy towards the Indian Ocean Region. The focus has been on improving relations with the littoral countries, militarily building Andaman Islands, monitoring the Chinese naval submarines berthing at Sri Lanka and watching developments in the Pakistani port of Gwadar that represents one end of the CPEC.
The Indian Prime Minister observed at the Raisina Dialogue that the arc of influence of the Indian Ocean region extended well beyond its littoral limits and added that 'our initiative of SAGAR- Security And Growth for All in the Region- is not limited to safeguarding our mainland and islands but is a means of enhancing economic and security cooperation in our maritime relationships’. Modi was upfront in emphasising the need to follow International Law- this was an indirect reference to China's acts against UNCLOS- and said 'we believe that respecting freedom of navigation and adhering to international norms is essential for peace and economic growth in the larger interlinked marine geography of the Indo- Pacific'.
In recent years China had used coercion of different kinds against Japan and Vietnam on issues relating to maritime boundaries. China took advantage of the seeming uncertainty that Trump administration initially showed on matters of global strategy but the US President has now put Indo-Pacific in the focus, thus countering the strident claim of China on the South China Sea reflected in the Chinese defiance of the international tribunal's decision of 2015. India under Modi gets the credit for creating a geo-political architecture in association with the US for a long term strategy for the Indo- Pacific. From India's point of view an extremely important side of the ASEAN summit at Manila was the 45-minute meeting between Prime Minister Modi and President Trump- their third one- on -one so far- in which they comprehensively discussed bilateral, regional and global issues in a ' cordial, constructive and very comfortable' setting. The matters discussed ranged from 'the shared commitment to a free and open Indo- Pacific region' to Afghanistan and accountability of those responsible for 'proliferation linkages'- a reference to the aid provided by Pakistan and China to North Korea's nuclear programme. The complete meeting of minds between the two leaders led to Prime Minister Modi pitching for a vision of India and the US working together in Asia and the rest of the world.
It is a tribute to the successful conduct of the 'Act East' policy that India has become a sheet anchor of unity of major democratic powers against the China- Pak axis which is an alliance of an Islamic State and a Communist dictatorship- both opposed to the values of a democratic Republic. India has to keep up to its new profile as a contributor to world peace by strengthening its defence of land, sea and air and enhancing investment in the new strategic dimensions of space and cyber. Effective counter-terrorism operations in Kashmir and our firm stand on Doklam have laid grounds for a resurgent India living up to its potential in dealing with the adversaries on one hand and playing an active role in uniting the forces of peace at the global level against terror, proliferation and aggression, on the other.
(The writer is a former director, IB)