India is taking major strides to expand its influence in Southeast Asia, a move that will allow countries to counter China’s dominance in the region.
“India certainly is becoming more ambitious in Southeast Asia. There is no doubt about it,” said Harsh V. Pant, vice president for studies and foreign policy at Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank.
It has also become “more forceful and more upfront” about its ties with the region, he added.
The growing rivalry between India and China is seen as influencing New Delhi’s strategic calculation in strengthening its presence.
For a long time, Indian leaders had been “hesitant and reticent” about the country’s role in the region, due to its own tensions with China along the Himalayan border, noted Pant.
Relations have been fraught since a border clash with Chinese forces in 2020, which killed at least 20 Indian soldiers, according to the Indian army.
“I think the understanding in New Delhi had been: Let’s not wade into waters where China might be more uncomfortable,” Pant told CNBC, adding that Beijing has “enormous potential to create trouble for India.”
Since China hasn’t “budged” on the border issue, India “now feels there has been no real return for its cautious attitude towards Southeast Asia,” he added.
India’s foreign ministry did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
In June, India’s external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar highlighted the border conflict was affecting relations between the two countries.
Until Sino-India relations achieve “some sense of normalcy,” Pant said, New Delhi has few options but to ramp up ties with countries — “big or small around China’s periphery, to ensure it has some leverage.”
In recent months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has stepped up its outreach to regional countries aimed at balancing Beijing’s aggression.
The move reinforces India’s ongoing comprehensive strategic partnership with Southeast Asia.
In June, New Delhi said it was giving a naval warship to Vietnam, in the latest sign of growing defense ties between both nations, said Satoru Nagao, a non-resident fellow at Hudson Institute, based in Tokyo.
“India also trains pilots and ground crew of fighter jets of the Vietnam Air Force. Indian naval ships visited Vietnam constantly,” he added.
Vietnam is now planning to buy supersonic missiles and surface-to-air missiles from India, said Nagao, who specializes in defense strategy, foreign policy, and security alliances.
“India’s ‘Look East’ policy began in 1991, well before China’s growing assertiveness was a real problem in Southeast Asia,” said Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation.
“But by 2014, when Modi turned the policy into ‘Act East,’ it was apparent that the region and world were dealing with a different kind of China — Xi’s China — which sought to flex its power more often and farther from Chinese shores,” he said referring to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.