The rise of India’s VIIPs: Shaping global geopolitics

In a recent article titled "Goodbye BRICS, Hello VIIPs—Southern Asia as the New Growth Hub," renowned journalist Tsuchiya Hideo argues that Vietnam, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines, collectively known as the VIIPs, are emerging as the new economic powerhouses.

VIIPs rising: India’s strategic pivot and the reshaping of global geopolitics

His analysis stems from the initial concept of the BRICS, formed in the early 21st century, which initially identified Brazil, Russia, India, and China as the primary drivers of global economic growth.

However, recent geopolitical expansions, driven by Beijing, seek to establish a bloc that rivals the G7. Anticipating China’s potential stagnation, the focus of global growth is shifting towards India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The VIIPs, with their promising economic potential, come to the forefront, indicating a dynamic shift in the global economic arena.

The VIIPs, each with a population surpassing 100 million, embody the future of global economic prowess. India and Southeast Asia share a profound historical connection dating back to ancient times, characterized by rich religious, cultural, and trade ties.

This enduring relationship has rooted in the diversity found in both regions, with a mosaic of ethnicities, religions, and languages, reflecting vibrant pluralistic societies.

Beyond the cultural connection, India and Southeast Asia confront shared interests and challenges in crucial domains such as connectivity, development, security, and regional integration.

This interconnected past lays the foundation for a present and future where collaborative efforts and mutual understanding continue to shape the dynamic interaction between India and the Southeast Asian region.

In recent years, India’s engagement with Southeast Asia has intensified manifold getting a major fillip with the formulation of India’s Act East Policy which evolved out of the Look EastPolicy (LEP) formulated in the 1990s, by PM Narendra Modi in 2014.

LEP was basically an economic strategy whereas AEP added geostrategic dimensions to it. AEP also brought India’s Northeast region to the centre of India’s developmental as well as geopolitical strategy. AEP is geared towards developing markets and connectivity links with Southeast Asia, and this ActEast (through Northeast India) is now becoming Act Indo-Pacific policy.

A renewed focus on the 3Cs – Commerce, Culture and Connectivity along with maritime security, climate change, disaster management, traditional and non-traditional security aspects now encompass the India – Southeast Asia relationship.

With the objective of binding the two regions in closer connectivity to maximally realise the hitherto unexploited economic potential of both regions in the areas of trade, commerce, and investments, several modes of connectivity projects were initiated by India.

Some significant regional connectivity projects include the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral (IMT) Highway and the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project.

The connectivity projects no longer remain limited to physical connectivity but an overlying emphasis is also being put on digital connectivity. In this regard, digital connectivity projects have been scaled up with Cambodia, Lao PDR, Vietnam, and Myanmar. India has a very robust mechanism in place with ASEAN – Southeast Asia’s regional cooperative framework.

They have a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in goods since 2010, and in services and investment since 2015.

The bilateral trade between India and ASEAN reached USD 86.9 billion in FY 20, making ASEAN India’s fourth-largest trading partner. The development cooperation between the two parties has also been gaining traction.

India has established three funds to support cooperation projects with ASEAN member countries which include theASEAN-India Cooperation Fund, the ASEAN-India Green Fund, and the ASEAN-India Science and Technology Development Fund. Security and defence cooperation have also become a major pillar of the India-ASEAN relationship.

India is a member of various ASEAN-led mechanisms that deal with regional security aspects including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+), and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum. India conducts regular joint military exercises with several ASEAN member countries, along with dialogues with ASEAN concerning issues like maritime security, cyber security, counter-terrorism, and humanitarian assistance, among others.

Additionally, India’s bilateral defence ties with several ASEAN members have been growing with BrahMos missiles being sold to Vietnam and the Philippines, developing a deep-sea port in Indonesia’s Aceh region, and developing Changi naval base in Singapore, amongst others.

Prime Minister Modi participated in the 20th ASEAN-India Summit and the 18th East Asia Summit (EAS) held in Jakarta on September 7, 2023. During the ASEAN-India Summit, he engaged in comprehensive discussions aimed at fortifying the ASEAN-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

Emphasizing ASEAN’s centrality in the Indo-Pacific, he highlighted the alignment between India’s Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative (IPOI) and ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). A 12-point proposal was presented, encompassing key areas such as connectivity, digital transformation, trade, and strategic engagement.

Joint Statements on Maritime Cooperation and Food Security were adopted, with Timor-Leste participating as an Observer. At the East Asia Summit, the Prime Minister reiterated India’s commitment to strengthening the EAS mechanism, supporting ASEAN centrality, and advocating for a free, open, and rules-based Indo-Pacific.

He underscored collaborative efforts on global challenges, including terrorism, climate change, and resilient supply chains, highlighting India’s initiatives in climate action through ISA, CDRI, LiFE, and OSOWOG.

The recent spurts of visits by India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to several Southeast Asian nations further lend weight to the burgeoning India-Southeast Asia ties. EAM’s two-nation visit to Vietnam and Singapore in October this year marks a highlight in boosting bilateral ties with these countries.

During the talk with his Singaporean counterpart Ng Eng Hen, the focus was on defense ties and maritime security. During his visit to Vietnam, Dr Jaishankar co-chaired the 18th meeting of the India-Vietnam Joint Commission on economic, trade and scientific and technological cooperation.

Security talks centred on Beijing and its belligerent and aggressive activities in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean Region. Both sides reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring peace, stability, safety, security and freedom of navigation and aviation, along with adherence to a rules-based order.

A comprehensive strategic partnership between India and Vietnam was identified as a key source of security, stability, and progress in the region. Earlier in July 2023, S Jaishankar made a two-nation visit to Indonesia and Thailand wherein he attended meetings under the India-ASEAN format, the BIMSTEC Foreign Ministers’ Retreat as well as the foreign Ministers’ Meeting of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation Mechanism (MCG), making the visit highly productive.

Dr Jaishankar advanced Neighborhood First’ and ‘Act East’ policies, prioritising regional integration and strengthening ties with India’s Southeast Asian neighbours.

The inaugural Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) ForeignMinisters’ Retreat provided a platform for extensive discussions emphasizing “strategies and approaches that would lead to strengthened growth and the promotion of prosperity for all involved parties.”

Additionally, the 12th Foreign Ministers’ Meeting of the Mekong Ganga Cooperation Mechanism (MGC) was also attended in Bangkok by the Indian EAM. Engagement with member countries viz. Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam provided India the opportunity to engage plurilateral ally as well as bilaterally with these countries advancing the promotion of tourism, culture, education, as well as transport and communications. India’s Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, bolstered the India-Southeast Asia relationship during his recent visit to Jakarta for the 10th ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus). The visit played a pivotal role in enhancing security and strategic cooperation between India and Southeast Asia.

Singh stressed the significance of adhering to established regulations. In the meeting, Indian Defence Minister reaffirmed India’s stand on ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific region and called for an active collaboration among ASEAN-Plus countries and dialogue partners for peace, prosperity & security in the region.

The minister highlighted Unwavering commitment to freedom of navigation, overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce on international waters. He urged the member countries for regional security initiatives that are consultative and development-oriented to reflect the larger consensus among various stakeholders.

India proposed to co-chair the Expert Working Group on Counter-Terrorism endorsed by ADMM-Plus while recognising terrorism a serious threat to international peace and security.

His bilateral meetings with Indonesian and Vietnamese counterparts on the sidelines of the ADMM-Plus focused on deepening of the multifaceted bilateral defence ties through training, capacity building, defence industry cooperation, UN Peacekeeping, bilateral ship visits and joint military exercises.

The evolving territorial assertions of the People’s Republic of China in the Indo-Pacific have spurred a closer defence rapport between New Delhi and Manila.

As the Indo-Philippines defence relationship strengthens, potential measures range from economic coercion by China to enhanced security cooperation short of a mutual defence treaty.

The growing proximity between New Delhi and Manila signifies a pivotal development in the Indo-Pacific’s evolving geopolitical dynamics.Dr. Rajkumar Ranjan Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs and Education, is set to embark on an official visitto Malaysia from November 30 to December 2, 2023.

The visit aims to reinforce the India-Malaysia Enhanced Strategic Partnership, established during PrimeMinister Shri Narendra Modi’s visit in 2015, and build upon the outcomes of the India-Malaysia Joint Commission Meeting in New Delhi on November 7, 2023.

During the visit, MoS Singh will engage with various Malaysian ministers, attend the inaugural GOPIO International Business Summit & Expo on December 1, and participate in the GOPIO International Business Excellence Awards ceremony on December 2.

Additionally, he will inaugurate the Indian Workers Resource Center at the High Commission of India in Kuala Lumpur, interact with the Indian community, and partake in the ‘Bhakti – the Musical’ cultural program at the Temple of Fine Arts. In conclusion, the geopolitical scenario is undergoing a seismic shift, with the VIIPs (Vietnam, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines) are emerging as economic powerhouses.

TsuchiyaHideo’s assertion marks the end of the BRICS era, signaling a strategic realignment. India’s proactive engagement with Southeast Asia, epitomized by the Act East Policy, emphasizes a digital and strategic dimension.

The ASEAN partnership, fortified by robust trade agreements and security collaborations, showcases India’s commitment to regional stability. Recent high-profile visits by Ministers Jaishankar and Singh underscore India’s focus on defense ties, maritime security, and countering common threats. As India strengthens its bonds with Southeast Asia, the evolving Indo-Pacific dynamics reflect a pivotal moment in global geopolitics.

Tarah Nguyen