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What is Holding India Back in Southeast Asia?

Over recent years, popular media and discussions have dubbed India an emerging major power. Enthusiastically, journalists and scholars alike described India’s footprint in Southeast Asia to be “growing” or “expanding.” Furthermore, with its diplomatic efforts, India was seen as a potential counterbalance to China’s influence in Southeast Asia. It was not by chance that India’s reach extended to Southeast Asia.


An Illustration on What is holding back India in Southeast Asia?

Illustration by The Geostrata


Through the “look east policy” which later evolved into “act east policy,” India aimed to foster better and warmer economic, cultural, and strategic ties with Indo pacific states. ASEAN was pointed out as the core within the act east policy.


In efforts to materialize this policy, trade deals between ASEAN and India were stamped out, cultural links between Southeast Asian states and India were emphasized and most significantly both sides engaged in defense diplomacy.

This included joint exercises between navies and even India gifting military equipment to Southeast Asian states. Despite all these efforts, India’s influence in the region still is not considered “established” unlike other surrounding major powers. This begs the question. What is holding India back?


It would be correct to say that India’s limited reach in Southeast Asia is due to its smaller economy and lesser developed human capital. Compare its 3.389 trillion USD GDP to China’s 17.886 trillion USD or Japan’s 4.237 trillion USD GDP.


However, this answer barely scratches the surface and is not quite helpful as it lacks depth and further inspection. It is akin to a runner answering “I wasn’t fast enough” when asked why he lost a race. A more thorough examination that investigates India’s past, policies along with the reality it exists in are needed to formulate a more useful answer.


Observers of global affairs often seem to forget just how late India was in opening its economy to the world. China opened special economic zones in the late 70s so did Bangladesh and Sri Lanka at around the same time. India on the other hand opened its borders for trade and investment in 1991.

To provide a better perspective, Cambodia that suffered internal turmoil, opened its borders 2 years prior to India. Before the reform, Indian exports and imports were strictly regulated and investments into the country were constricted. Having missed out on decades of a consequential aspect of foreign policy, it makes sense that the sub-continent lost opportunities to expand its networks and outreach to other regions when compared to surrounding states.   

                                               

Another factor that hinders India’s influence in Southeast Asia could be its limited external affairs ministry’s manpower and funds. Despite the plans to add a couple hundred more diplomats to its corps, the currently 850 strong Indian diplomatic staff is falling behind in numbers when compared to the likes of China, Japan, Indonesia, Britain, and France whose diplomatic corps strength are in the thousands.


Professor Mattoo from Jawaharlal Nehru University has added that Indian diplomats also lack language skills. Furthermore, the treasury has only granted 0.4% of the annual budget for the External Affairs Ministry. With quantity, quality, and funds spread out way too thin, it is no surprise for Delhi’s impact to be less felt everywhere throughout the world.


Specifically for Southeast Asia, India does not have an arm of foreign policy at its disposal like China’s BRI and AIIB or Japan’s ADB which provides loans and grants for infrastructure throughout the region. India is a QUAD member state, frequently engages in joint exercises and provides military equipment to Southeast Asian states.


Instances of this including offering helicopters to the Philippines and warships to Vietnam. Although India can take credit for these, the absence of a permanent institution limit’s Delhi’s impact in Southeast Asia.

Despite frequently reiterating the Act East policy, Southeast Asia is not India’s foreign policy top priority. India’s primary focus goes to its immediate neighbors. Rhetoric from Indian officials as well its foreign policy actions reflect this. Through the “neighborhood first” policy India has poured its attention to surrounding South Asian states. External Affairs Minister Jaishankar does not shy away from using strong language to call out Pakistan’s alleged terrorist affiliation.


As for Bangladesh, India has funded railways, power plants and has access to ports in the country. Bhutan too has received aid from India in the form of a hospital. Finally, India seems keen on winning Sri Lanka and Nepal’s favor by importing their renewable energy. With all these actions, India appears more eager to keep its neighbors in check and consolidate its influence around them as opposed to in Southeast Asia.


Upon an extended look at the world map, the reason for India’s restricted enthusiasm in Southeast Asia becomes clear. Southeast Asia is not as important to India as it is to China. Both Asian giants have trade and investment opportunities as well as diplomatic connections at stake in Southeast Asia.

However, only to China the Malacca strait bears a near existential weight as 80% of its fossil fuel import passes through the strait. On the other hand, most of India’s oil imports only pass through the Red Sea before being out in the open Indian ocean and reaching India’s west coast. In short India does not have to throw around its weight in Southeast Asia like China does to stay afloat.


A relatively inexperienced and underfunded external ministry manned by insufficient staff that lack in quality could be to blame after further digging. However, the absence of a permanent institution that extends Delhi’s reach in Southeast Asia could be pointed out as a problem as well.


India’s bounded capacity in Southeast Asia might not purely be a skill issue either. It is just that its primary interest lies elsewhere. India’s actions have been consistent with its words in focusing on its neighborhood first. Finally, India sees no need to extend its reach to Southeast Asia as it does not need to secure chokepoints in the region as its adversary China does.


India’s ever-growing presence in Southeast Asia is generally welcomed by regional members as well as the US. It is also often treated as a breath of fresh air. Reasons being India could be a counterweight or perhaps even provide an opportunity to hedge against China. However, if Southeast Asian countries truly want to hedge more effectively or even inch closer to achieving ASEAN centrality, ASEAN will have to provide stronger incentive for a somewhat reluctant India to engage deeper and more frequently with Southeast Asia.


 

BY HAN KYEOL KIM

Han Kyeol Kim is an Indonesian citizen, fresh graduate from international relations program in Pelita Harapan University with Corporate and International Security as concentration. Areas of interest include Geopolitics, Southeast Asian studies,

Indonesian Foreign Policy as well as history.


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India's diplomatic efforts have improved India-ASEAN ties.

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