There’s an engaging subplot to the headline narrative of the strategic tussle between China and the United States for influence in the Asia-Pacific: the quiet success of India in reaching out to Southeast Asian countries.
Through its Look East policy India has of course been courting its East Asian neighbours for a long time now; but in recent months New Delhi has been making impressive strides in strengthening its defense ties in Southeast Asia.
In this endeavour India has a unique selling point: it isn’t China, and it isn’t the U.S. This status as Asia’s tertiary superpower is enabling India to play a kind of avuncular strategic role, giving it a platform on which to team with the Southeast Asians on their military development without bringing any of the perceived strategic baggage that comes with dealing with the Chinese or the Americans.
The list of India’s regional allies is now growing rapidly. Indian and Indonesian troops are currently engaged in their first ever joint exercise, a counterinsurgency and jungle warfare drill. The two countries’ improving ties have prompted editorials in the Indonesian press describing how Jakarta and New Delhi are poised to “recapture the old magic” of their once-excellent bilateral relationship.
The Indian military seems set to start training its Vietnamese counterparts on the operation of the Kilo-class submarine. Last year, Vietnam granted Indian warships the rare privilege of stopping in Nha Trang port in a gesture that was interpreted as the beginning of a sustainable Indian naval presence in the country.
The list goes on. India’s army chief was in Burma last month amid growing speculation that the Burmese government is eager to bolster New Delhi’s presence in the country to counterbalance China’s excessive influence. India began a defense dialogue with Thailand in December, and hosted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra last month as the two sides eye a far-reaching strategic partnership. The inaugural Philippines-India Joint Defense Co-operation Committee convened in Manila in January. And joint military exercises with Singapore continue to be held annually as part of a maturing defense partnership.
India is, naturally, not the whole story from the Southeast Asians’ perspective: those countries are also upgrading their strategic relationships with either China or the U.S., and in some cases with both, as well as with other parties such as Japan and South Korea.
However, despite all the headlines about Chinese and U.S. power-plays for the strategic advantage in the Asia-Pacific, it’s arguably India that has made the most headway over the past year in terms of expanding its strategic footprint in Southeast Asia.
The Indian defense industry, which has a very poor record of securing export contracts for its equipment, will be hoping that this expanding network translates into firm orders as the Southeast Asian countries increase their defense budgets and seek partners to help them retool their militaries. Malaysia and Vietnam, for example, are both reported to be interested in procuring BrahMos cruise missiles, which India co-developed with Russia. But the Indian defense industry will never have a better opportunity to sell equipment to Southeast Asia than it does right now, with countries like Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam modernizing their armed forces across the board and likely to be attracted to the low-cost alternatives that India should be able to provide.
Whether India can monetize its strong defense relationships in Southeast Asia remains to be seen. But amidst all the jockeying for strategic position in the Asia-Pacific, a nimble India appears to be outmanoeuvring the bigger powers.