S-E Asia still important to India's development and security

S-E Asia still important to India's development and security
In a speech marking India's 68th year of independence from British colonial rule, Prime Minister Modi acknowledges that times have changed since the Planning Commission for the 12th Five-Year plan, and promises that a new institution would be set up.

South-East Asian countries may be forgiven for being worried about falling off India's new foreign policy map. The region, except for Myanmar, has been conspicuously absent in the sparse foreign policy statements to come from the newly elected Narendra Modi government.

When Indian envoys from neighbouring countries assembled this week for consultations with the new Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, the only diplomat posted to a South-east Asian country to be invited was the one posted to Myanmar. But the absence should not lead to hasty conclusions: South-east Asia remains important for India's economic development and security, even if it is not the first order of priority.

Reading between the early diplomatic chess moves suggests that Mr Modi's immediate foreign policy concerns have to do with national security rather than a broader regional strategy. This can be seen from the invitation extended to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) neighbours, and also Lobsang Sangay, Premier of the Tibetan Administration in exile, to Mr Modi's swearing-in ceremony on May 26.

It was also reflected in the subsequent hosting of China's special envoy, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, earlier this month, the conclave of Indian envoys from the neighbourhood on Monday, and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj making her first trip to Bangladesh.

China and Pakistan are traditional security concerns for India. It was not surprising then that Indian envoys summoned to Delhi for consultation included not only the ones from China and Pakistan but also from Myanmar which has close ties with China and has played an important role in India's ethnic insurgencies. The security aspect of Myanmar's importance rather than it being a neighbour is underlined by the fact that the country's Prime Minister - a former general - was not invited to Mr Modi's swearing-in ceremony, which was presented as a celebration of democracy in the region.

Mr Modi's choice of Mr Ajit Kumar Doval, former chief of India's intelligence service, to be his national security adviser also shows the new Prime Minister's security preoccupations. Mr Doval has a distinguished career in dealing with Pakistan, terrorist threats and domestic insurgent movements.

By visiting Chinese-contested Arunachal Pradesh before the elections, Mr Modi also signalled the importance of territorial disputes in his dealings with China. Diplomatic sources say that during Mr Wang Yi's visit this month, the Indians raised the issue as requiring resolution for developing cooperation.

China's long-standing policy of helping Pakistan's defence capabilities against India, and its sustained attempt to build economic and security relations with India's South Asian neighbours - something India views as an attempt at encirclement - are clearly matters of urgent concern. Although some South-east Asian countries want India to play a balancing role to an assertive China strengthening its control over the South China Sea, the Modi administration does not seem interested.

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