Will Modi’s latest visit reset a proactive Indo-Pacific policy?

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After his recent visits to Wuhan, Kathmandu and Sochi, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi now is on a five-day visit to Indonesia and Singapore. This is aimed at providing a new boost to India’s Act East policy and to outline his government’s approach to Indo-Pacific geopolitics.

The highlight of Modi’s visit will be a keynote address to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this Friday, which could provide a reset to India’s engagement with the Indo-Pacific narratives that have so far been high only on rhetoric.

The speech is also highly anticipated because since 2002, when the Shangri-La Dialogue began and has come to be the most important annual meet of defense ministers and chiefs of militaries of Asia-Pacific countries, India’s defense ministers have participated no more than four times.

Indeed, last year India abruptly pulled out of the dialogue as the final agenda refused a speaking slot for India’s deputy defense minister, while the head of the Pakistani Joint Chiefs of Staff was listed to address a plenary session.

In terms of its substance, this Friday’s speech will come at the end of a series of  official meetings, civil receptions and cultural engagements that showcase and outline Modi’s new vision on India’s expanding maritime connect for building regional peace and security.

High on his agenda is renewal of the lapsed defense pact with Indonesia that will now provide India special access to Indonesia’s deep-sea Sabang port on the Strait of Malacca.

Saturday will see Modi concluding his trip to Singapore with a visit to Changi naval base where he will interact with naval officials and sailors of India’s Shivalik-class stealth frigate INS Satpura, which will be visiting Singapore as part of naval exchanges. These allude to India’s new proactive Indo-Pacific policy.

As Modi discusses with Joko Widodo and Lee Hsien Loong India’s concerns with China’s expanding footprint across the littorals of the Indo-Pacific region and how to counter it, he will have to reckon with their visions that may be at variance to his

India’s Indo-Pacific policy will also have its share of challenges given that Singapore has had serious reservations on the recently revived Quadrilateral of the US, Australia, Japan and India.

Moreover, next month Modi will be rubbing shoulders again with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders at the Qingdao summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, often described as the “Eastern NATO,” making skeptics see India laying it too thin on all sides.

Indeed, as Modi discusses with Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong India’s concerns with China’s expanding footprint across the littorals of the Indo-Pacific region and how to counter it, he will have to reckon with their visions that may be at variance to his.

Modi will, of course, blend his geopolitics with his developmental narratives. His Shangri-La speech is expected to elucidate his “Sagar Mala” philosophy that aims to develop Indian ports to strengthen maritime connectivity with their hinterlands.

However, Sri Lanka has already shown interest in joining it, so it may be extended to build connections with maritime neighbors across the Indo-Pacific region. The Sagar Mala project began in March 2015, with an aim to “harness India’s 7,500-kilometer-long coastline, 14,500km of potentially navigable waterways and strategic location on key international maritime trade routes” and “to promote port-led development in the country.”

The Indian prime minister’s visit will also be an exercise in building personal chemistry and camaraderie with regional leadership. Indeed, Prime Minister Modi and President Widodo both came to power in 2014 and this will be their fourth meeting in as many years.

Their meetings are expected to see a raft of economic, defense and security agreements being signed. This year, India and Indonesia had their first security dialogue that underlined the need for strengthening military cooperation.

After similar projects in Iran and Sri Lanka, India will now upgrade ports and airports of Indonesia. To underline their enduring cultural links, their joint kite-flying festival will feature themes from Ramayana and Mahabharata. Modi will also visit a historic Buddhist temple and the National Heroes’ Cemetery and address a gathering of Indian diaspora. The two leaders will also unveil a logo marking 70 years of diplomatic ties.

In Singapore, this is Modi’s second visit and June 1 will begin with formal talks between the two leaders followed by their press conference that may see announcements of some major initiatives.

Modi will also attend an India-Singapore Enterprise event and address chief executives of 20 companies outlining their economic connect and India’s attractions for investments after reforms that his government has initiated.

Several agreements on defense, space and skill development are expected to be signed. Modi’s other engagements include a visit to the famous Nanyang Technological University and inaugurating a plaque at a place where Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were immersed. Almost like Mahatma Buddha’s Mahanirvana, in 1948 Gandhi’s ashes were sent to various parts of India and abroad, including to Singapore.

Defense officials and military chiefs of nations in regional and Western alliances have great expectations from India joining the anti-China “Indo-Pacific” alliance. So far India has been meandering in the meadows of intellectual calisthenics. Regional leaders are now perhaps eager to see how it wishes to raise its regional military profile.

India prides itself as a “net security provider” and “leading power” that seeks to shape rather than simply react to regional policies. But deficiencies of the Indian military are a familiar story, and that will continue to be a formidable gap between India’s reality and its aspirations for a robust Indo-Pacific policy.

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