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What Did the Malaysian Prime Minister’s Visit Mean for India’s ‘Act East’ Policy?

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The Pulse

What Did the Malaysian Prime Minister’s Visit Mean for India’s ‘Act East’ Policy?

What Najib Razak’s time in India tells us about Modi’s outreach to Southeast Asia.

What Did the Malaysian Prime Minister’s Visit Mean for India’s ‘Act East’ Policy?
Credit: Flickr/ MEA photo gallery

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was in India on a five-day trip from March 30 to April 4. The visit, the third by the Malaysian prime minister, came as the two countries are celebrating the 60th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. A day before departing for India, Najib tweeted a reference to the anniversary: “I’ll be travelling to India for a 5-day visit. A country that’s been our friend since 1957. Looking forward to meeting PM @narendramodi again.”

Najib first landed in Chennai on March 30, and arrived in New Delhi the next day. Delegation-level talks were held by Najib and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 1.

Background to the Bilateral Relationship

Along with Singapore, Malaysia has been one of India’s key partners in ASEAN, with the Indian diaspora being one of the binding factors. The joint statement on the 60th anniversary of India-Malaysia diplomatic relations, issued after the Modi-Najib meeting, acknowledged this point: “The presence of a very large Indian-origin community in Malaysia and their significant participation in the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas serve to bring the two countries even closer.”

During Former India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s 2010 visit to Malaysia, both countries upgraded their relationship to a strategic partnership. The joint statement of October 27, 2010 also points to the need to join hands in the fight against terror, especially in the context of information sharing and formation of a joint working group on counterterrorism.

On the economic front, trade today with Malaysia is estimated at $12.8 billion; both countries hope to raise it to $15 billion. Malaysian investments in India are estimated at $7 billion, while Indian investments in Malaysia are estimated at $2.5 billion.

Relations between India and Malaysia are not restricted to New Delhi and Kuala Lumpur. The recent joint statement took note of this, saying the two governments, “welcoming the growing interaction and exchanges between the states of India and Malaysia, especially in the areas of investment and projects, agreed to promote greater linkages between the states of the two countries.”

State governments like Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have been especially active in reaching out to Malaysia for investments in infrastructure. Andhra Pradesh’s Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu has visited Malaysia, while a number of Malaysian delegations have visited AP to explore possible investment in Amaravati, the new capital of the state. Naidu also met with Najib on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in June 2015.  Significantly, one of the Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) signed during the Malaysian prime minister’s visit was an agreement between the Andhra Pradesh Economic Development Board and MiGHT Technology Nurturing Sdn Bhd (MTN) for the development of a technology park in AP. Meanwhile, Telangana’s Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao visited Malaysia in August 2014, while a delegation from Malaysia’s Penang province, led by Deputy Chief Minister P. Ramasamy visited Telangana in August 2016. Telangana sought assistance from Penang in the manufacturing sector as well as for skill development.

Najib’s Visit

During the delegation-level talks, a range of strategic and economic issues were discussed. Seven MoUs were signed between both sides, including an air services agreement, cooperation in the development of a proposed urea and ammonia manufacturing plant in Malaysia, mutual recognition of educational qualifications in each other’s countries, and an MoU between the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) and Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), India for collaboration on technology development in the field of palm oil.

On April 3, Najib addressed the India-Malaysia Business Forum Event. While pitching for the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), the Malaysian prime minister also urged Indian companies to invest in Malaysia. Indian and Malaysian companies signed preliminary pacts worth about $36 billion in the presence of Najib and Indian Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman

If one were to look beyond the agreements signed, there were a number of interesting aspects to the visit.

First, yet again the role of states in foreign policy came to the fore, with Najib first choosing to land in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. The state is important because Tamils are a substantial ethnic group in Malaysia. “Over 7 percent of our population are of Indian origin,” Najib said during his visit. “Indian-Malaysians play a key role in building Malaysia.” Tamils are a majority of Indian-Malaysians. During his Chennai visit, the Malaysian prime minster met with the famous Tamil film star Rajnikanth, whose film Kabali had been shot in Malaysia.

Apart from Tamil Nadu, Najib also visited Rajasthan. While addressing a delegation there, he lauded the pro-reform initiatives taken by the government led by Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia. Raje, on her part, sought greater investment in infrastructure, while also seeking assistance in the health sector. Malaysian companies are engaged in road and other infrastructure projects estimated to be worth over $1 billion dollars.

Second, both Najib and Modi spoke about the need to counter terrorism. This is significant. India has been reaching out to  a number of countries, including Pakistan’s allies, for counterterrorism cooperation. A number of states in the Gulf Cooperation Council, like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have begun to take note of terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil. Joint statements during Modi’s visits to these countries spoke about delinking religion from terrorism. Support from Malaysia for India’s fight against terror is another positive step . Modi in fact praised Malaysia’s counterterrorism strategy, telling Najib, “Your own leadership in countering radicalization and terrorism is an inspiration for the entire region.”

The joint statement categorically stated:

“[T]he fight against terrorism should not only seek to disrupt and eliminate terrorists, terror organizations and networks, but should also identify, hold accountable, and take strong measures against states, which encourage, support, and finance terrorism, provide sanctuary to terrorists and terror groups, and falsely extol their virtues.”

Finally on the South China Sea issue, there was an indirect reference as both countries referred to the need for “respecting freedom of navigation and over flight, and unimpeded lawful commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982.”

Lessons for India’s “Act East” Policy

There are a number of important lessons from Najib’c visit for India’s “Act East” policy. First, there are numerous stakeholders who should be encouraged to bolster the policy in an effective manner. State governments should be used effectively to engage with India’s diaspora, but also to seek foreign direct investment.

Second, the Act East policy should not be thought of merely in terms of connectivity through the northeast. This is an important dimension, but southern India is also making efforts, with states like Telangana and Andhra Pradesh showing the way. Similarly, in the north Rajasthan is reaching out to Singapore and Malaysia. States in Eastern India like Bihar, Odisha, and West Bengal should follow suit and try to benefit from closer ties with East Asia and South Asia.

Third, there is a dire need for greater connectivity between India and ASEAN. There should be an emphasis on enhancing connectivity between tier two cities and ASEAN countries. This will help not just in enhancing people to people contact but also business linkages.

Finally, India’s efforts at improving ties with Southeast Asia do have a strategic dimension and the China factor can not be ignored. Yet India’s historic ties to the region, along with the economic imperatives for expanding relations, are compelling. It is important for India to look at the relationship with ASEAN beyond the lens of Beijing.

Today, the Act East policy can no longer be a straitjacketed policy formulated by New Delhi’s foreign policy mandarins, or restricted to a few track two dialogues between think-tanks. New stakeholders are making contributions toward strengthening ties with Southeast Asia and East Asia; they should be brought on board in a purposeful manner.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is an assistant professor with the Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat.