Sin­ga­pore – In­dia’s source of strength in South East Asia

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[ 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.

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