India is gradually increasing the support it is willing to provide to nations in South East Asia and the Pacific Islands, given the encouraging signals from countries in the region who seem comfortable with New Delhi’s growing coinfidence in meeting their defence requirements.
Given that South East Asian countries have a significant maritime dispute with China and lack a unified voice in the ASEAN political and regional grouping, it is natural that these countries may be looking for alternatives.
While the United States has substantially enhanced its military and diplomatic profile under the Indo-Pacific Strategy over multiple administrations from Obama to Trump and now Biden, relying on Washington wholly is expected to irk Beijing. Under the circumstances, India may appear attractive given New Delhi’s push of the Act East Policy graduating from Look East and the Indian Ocean Initiative.
Importantly for the past few years, the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not shy of using the military as a tool for gunboat diplomacy while having expanded exports of war-like materials. Further India has also recently shown a greater inclination to engage militarily with Taiwan, albeit at the Track 2 level.
Here is a review of the above developments-
The Philippines has emerged as an important track in India’s politico-military diplomacy in the region. India’s first major lethal arms exports were to the Philippines, with the deal being confirmed last year. The Philippines is willing to look at other arms supplies from India in the near future.
In the political sphere, India supported the Philippines on the arbitral awards in the South China Sea for the first time. This was when the Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines, Mr. Enrique A. Manalo, visited India from 27-30 June 2023 to co-chair the 5th India-Philippines Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC), to be held on 29 June 2023 in New Delhi.
The Joint Statement on the occasion said, amongst other issues, “They underlined the need for peaceful settlement of disputes and for adherence to international law, especially the UNCLOS and the 2016 Arbitral Award on the South China Sea in this regard,” China has rejected the Award and Indian support could be seen as a affront by Beijing but only increases India’s heft in the region.
India-Vietnam relations have had a special flavour over the years. In the defence field, India has provided Vietnam with multiple lines of credit for the procurement of military arms.
In July, India provided an active warship to the Vietnam People’s Navy for the first time. INS Kirpan was handed over to Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN) on 22 July at Cam Ranh, Vietnam.
The Decommissioning and Handing Over Ceremony of INS Kirpan to VPN was presided over by Adm R Hari Kumar, Chief of Naval Staff, Indian Navy and Rear Adm Pham Manh Hung, Deputy Commander-in-Chief and Chief of Staff, VPN.
Kirpan is the third indigenously built Khukri class missile corvette, currently in active service in the Indian Navy. The ship is fitted with an array of weapons and sensors and has participated in various operational and humanitarian assistance operations.
Notably the PLA Navy conducts exercises in the South China Sea in waters claimed by both sides.
In a pinnacle of sorts, INS Sahyadri and INS Kolkata, on a deployment to the Eastern IOR, received Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea (PNG) Mr James Marape during their port call to Port Moresby. The PM visited the warship accompanied by Cabinet Members and Senior Government Officials. PM Marape encouraged more visits by Indian Naval ships that would help build people-to-people connections. Indeed this would be a first for the navies visiting the PNG for the visit of the head of government to a warship indicates ready acceptance of the Indian Navy in its waters.
In a singular development, three retired service chiefs are visiting Taiwan to attend Tack 2 events in the country. Former army chief General Manoj Naravane, navy chief General Karambir Singh and air chief Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria are in Taiwan. Former Navy Chief Karambir Singh is listed to attend the Ketagalan Forum hosted by Taiwan’s foreign ministry.
“Taro Aso, former Prime Minister of Japan and current member of the House of Representatives and Vice President of the LDP, and Andrus Ansip, former Prime Minister of Estonia, will deliver keynote speeches. The roster of other guests comprises 14 parliamentarians, political figures, scholars, and experts from 12 countries, including Admiral Karambir Singh, Chairman of India’s National Maritime Foundation," reads a press release from Taiwan’s foreign ministry.
While India has a vibrant trade relationship with Taiwan, the official government policy promotes the same devoid of any diplomatic contacts given the One China policy. Expanding this to the military sphere is indeed a new development, and how China reacts to the same remains to be seen.
The newfound confidence imparted to the Indian government is a part of the aggressive posturing that has been initialized by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While so far India has attempted to project the image of soft power, leading with diplomacy, economic and development activities, culture and people-to-people relationships, the willingness to shed the soft image in China’s backyard denotes a newfound confidence which should be fostered ahead.
For it is not just a competition to China, but as an essential stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific, India needs to increase its presence in the region in all domains.