Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Singapore this week to attend the East Asia Summit, ASEAN-India informal meet and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Summit. The Indian prime minister became the first head of government to deliver an address at the Singapore Fintech Festival, one of the largest events on financial technology, where he launched APIX, a banking technology designed to reach two billion people worldwide who are still without bank accounts.
PM Modi underlined the growing digitisation of the Indian economy and showcased India’s role in the shaping of global financial technologies which are not merely disruptive but also inclusive.
It is, however, the geopolitics and geo-economics of the changing Indo-Pacific which will be the focus of most of Modi’s engagements at various levels. The RCEP, accounting for almost 40 per cent of global trade, remains an important grouping for the 16 members — the 10-member ASEAN plus India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. It is a rather ambitious undertaking and despite repeated calls for an early conclusion, it remains mired in multiple issues which are thorny in nature. Though progress on the negotiations has been slow since they began in 2013, the Trump administration’s protectionist policies have given the negotiations a new momentum. It is now being hoped that the pact may now be concluded next year. India too has found it difficult to generate a domestic consensus on RCEP and it is likely that tough decisions on tariff reductions will now be taken only after elections next year, though Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu underscored that New Delhi was “very happy that India’s concerns have been taken on board, and... country will benefit from it.”
The East Asia Summit will be India exploring wide-ranging issues pertaining to smart cities, IT, communication, maritime cooperation and terrorism with 17 other participating leaders. EAS has now emerged as the most critical multilateral framework in the Indo-Pacific where multiple stakeholders engage each other annually. The East Asia Summit, which includes India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, the US and Russia apart from the 10 ASEAN member states, also gives India an opportunity to underline its credentials as an important stakeholder in regional developments.
PM Modi will also participate in the ASEAN India Bilateral Summit where progress in the goals set in the Delhi Declaration of the ASEAN India Commemorative Summit will be discussed. Addressing last year’s ASEAN-India Summit in Manila, Modi underscored India’s relationship with ASEAN is a key pillar of its foreign policy. Referring to India’s Act East Policy, he had underlined that “its centrality in the regional security architecture of the Indo-Pacific region is evident”. In a symbolic move, all 10 ASEAN heads of State were invited to be guests of honour for this year’s Republic Day function. Targeting China, Modi had also assured ASEAN of “steady support towards achieving a rules-based regional security architecture that best attests to the region’s interests and its peaceful development.”
India has repeatedly underscored the centrality of the ASEAN in its Indo-Pacific vision. In his keynote address at the Shangri La Dialogue earlier this year too, Modi had suggested that India will promote a democratic and rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific with ASEAN at its heart, that allows free access to common spaces and is not limited to a ‘club of limited members.’
It is in this context, it is interesting that despite suggestions that nothing much has been happening on the Quad front, the third meeting of Quad countries — India, the US, Japan and Australia — at the joint secretary-level will also take place in Singapore. It is clear that these four nations do not want to let go of the momentum that is gradually building up. There may be little substance in the engagement at the moment but all four states remain keen to leverage it in some form.
The Indo-Pacific region is now central to global politics and economics, and recent days have merely reinforced the trends that have been emerging for some time. China is the most important player in the region, and Beijing is now more confident than ever of projecting regional and global power. In this, China has had the good fortune of having an administration in the US that lacks seriousness of purpose and is unable to communicate effectively its priorities for the region. This makes this period of transition very significant for countries like India that have a stake in the long-term stability of the region. As China’s profile grows, there is a new opportunity for India in the region. Unlike in the past, New Delhi is no longer diffident about engaging with other regional players if it helps to further Indian interests in maintaining a stable balance of power in the region.
Harsh V. Pant is professor of International Relations, Defence Studies Department & the India Institute at King's College, London. He is a Visiting Fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in US India Policy Studies, CSIS, DC.
The East Asia Summit will be India exploring wide-ranging issues pertaining to smart cities, IT, communication, maritime cooperation and terrorism with 17 other participating leaders.