Singapore – India’s source of strength in South East Asia
[ By Ranjeet Kumar ]
India attaches special significance to its relations with Singapore, which acts as a source of strategic strength to India, especially in the South East Asian region. Singapore has been almost- single-handedly championing India’s cause in the ASEAN and has been the lynchpin of India’s now revised Act East Policy. In this background the long overdue visit of the President of Singapore Tony Tan Keng Yam from February 8 to 11 on the occasion of the 50th-year of establishment of diplomatic relations, has contributed to further deepening the bilateral diplomatic, strategic and economic relations. With the new Narendra Modi-led government in India, the two countries have reinvigorated their efforts to revitalise their multifaceted relations. The Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had visited the City State within three months of her taking over, last year in August and gave a momentum to the bilateral relations.
Besides Sushma Swaraj, several Chief Ministers of Indian states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, West Bengal and Rajasthan paid visits to the tiny country seeking investments and technological support for development of Smart Cities in their states. From the Singapore side also these high level visits were reciprocated by the Foreign Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Defence Minister and the Emeritus senior minister of Singapore which led to better understandings and expansion of cooperation in various fields. These interactions between the two countries are not new and both have been exchanging high level visits ever since India initiated Look East policy in the early 1990s.
However, the visit of the Singapore Head of State was long overdue and the last time such visit happened in 2003 when President Nathan visited India. From Indian side President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam had last visited the country in 2006. The earlier presidential visits were by President K.R. Narayanan in 2000, President V.V. Giri in 1971.
Though Singapore is a tiny country in the South East Asian region, its technological and military prowess projects it as a major power in the region and its strategic location near South China Sea has encouraged India to develop strategic relations with the armed forces. Indian and Singaporean navy conduct joint maritime exercise in the South China Sea focusing on anti-submarine warfare, involving other major warships of the two navies. These maritime show of strength by India and Singapore has been frowned upon by the powerful maritime neighbour China and a source of envy to them. Through these exercises the two countries have been able to project their strategic convergence. Thus with the joint SIMBEX exercise between India and Singapore India has been able to mark its military presence in the South China Sea.
Economic exchanges are no less significant in bilateral relations which is proved from these facts. India is the largest trade and investment partner in the ASEAN. The country is also the second largest source of foreign investment into India as it accounts for a little above 12 per cent of total FDI in India during the period from 2000 onwards. Singapore is also India’s top destination in terms of overseas investments. Roughly over $33 billion has been invested by Indian companies as over 6,000 of them have registered their presence in the country.
Though strategic relations have been able to raise the profile of each other in the South China Sea, India has in recent years been seeking Singapore’s assistance in utilizing Singapore’s skill in terms of skill development in India. Singapore is already setting up a skills development institute in New Delhi and the two countries are also working together to initiate similar moves in the North Eastern region of India.
Besides skills development, India has also been seeking Singapore’s assistance in developing Smart Cities, the pet project of India’s new NDA Government led by Narendra Modi. The Indian Government has encouraged Indian Chief Ministers to interact directly with the Singapore Government in the urban development matters including Smart Cities. These issues comprised major agenda of discussions during the visit of President Tony.
After the conclusion of the visit the spokesperson of the Indian External Affairs Ministry Sayeed Akbaruddin said, “India-Singapore relationship, based on convergence of views and values and Singapore’s role as our gateway to ASEAN, is robust and expanding. It encompasses strong political understanding, close defence and security cooperation, growing complementaries in economic engagement, civilisational and cultural linkages and shared interests in bilateral and multilateral fora.”
While hosting a banquet in honour of President Tony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan President Pranab Mukherjee described Singapore as a valued friend of India and a major pillar of India’s Act East Policy. He said: “India appreciates Singapore’s contribution to its engagement with ASEAN. India is looking forward to embark upon a larger role in the Asia-Pacific.” Responding to President Mukherjee’s comments President Tony said, “The strength of the relations goes beyond economic or diplomatic. It reflects a deep understanding between the people and governments of the two countries. Building on the foundation of last 50 years, there is much more that can be done.”
President Mukherjee made a significant statement of strategic importance, “We are partners across the seas and an integral part of the regional architecture in the Asia-Pacific region. Today, both the countries are at an interesting cusp in history, witnessing major transformations. It shall be endeavour of India and Singapore to work together towards maintaining peace and stability in the region and bringing development to the peoples of two countries.”
No wonder that there has been strong bipartisan support in India for developing vibrant strategic relations with Singapore, which was initiated by the P.V. Narasimha Rao Government in early 1990s and followed up with greater vigour by the Atal Behari Vajpayee Government. The NDA Government is once again at the helm of affairs and has indicated that Singapore will continue to be the centerpiece of India’s strategic and economic engagement with the Association of South East Asian Nations.