India has increased its outreach in ASEAN triggered by the increased Chinese influence and activities in the Indo-Pacific region. There is enhanced number of security consultations, political dialogues and even Joint Military exercises with various Southeast Asian countries as India pushes to establish its presence in the area.
India had reiterated the significance and commitment to ASEAN nations by inviting all the 10 heads for its 69th Republic Day celebrations although the existing protocol was to invite one foreign dignitary as the Chief Guest for the grand day. The gesture underlined the strategic engagement of the ASEAN nations with India. Harimau Shakti -the huge military exercise with Malaysia marks another milestone in its commitment to the region. The exercise will last until May 13 and is aimed at creating synergy and interoperability between the two armed forces.
In an official statement, the Ministry of Defence has stated that the whole exercise is conducted to foster coordination and cooperation between the two nations in addition to sharing of expertise for carrying out counter-insurgency operations in the jungle terrain. The underlying aim of both the armies will be to sharpen the tactical skills in jungle warfare. The Indian contingent is marked by the 4 Grenadiers Battalion while the Malaysian participants are 1 Royal Ranger Regiment and the Royal Malay Regiment. Both the sides will undergo advanced training while they engage in planning and execution of many training activities in the dense forests of Sengai Perdik, Hulu Langat in Malaysia.
The exercise is being conducted with the larger aim of strengthening the strategic partnership between the two nations but will also fine-tune the operational tactics in counterinsurgency. This exercise is significant as it marks the first joint military training exercise between the two Asian economies at this scale in Malaysia.
India and Malaysia have been strategic partners since 2010 and share a positive history of cooperation in defence. They have been exchanging information on Su-30 fighter aircraft along with its technical and maintenance support. Also, when Malaysia had inducted the Su-30 MKM fighter jet and had started its operation, a team of Indian Air Force was stationed there between 2008 to 2010. Malaysian Air Force had also sent its pilots and technicians to work in Mig-29 Fulcrums in the 1990s. Thus, the two nations have successfully maintained and nurtured strong naval cooperation. This is also evident from the fact that Indian Navy often is a participant in Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition in Malaysia along with other nations. There are also regular Port visits by Indian Navy and Coast Guard ships. All these hold great importance in the geopolitical arena in the wake of rising Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean.
The whole discussion calls for a relook at India’s Look East Policy which was historically launched with a view to boosting economic and trade ties with Singapore as the central point. Thus the Indian bilateral relations with Malaysia still continues to serve both the economic domain along with the increased focus on defence domain. The whole scenario falls in place as the Policy changed from “Look East” to “Act East”. Indian relations with South Eastern economies like Indonesia and Malaysia are slowly gaining ground. There has been a renewed focus on the bilateral commitment between India and Malaysia to respect the principles of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, thus maintaining complete freedom of navigation. The rise in Indian sphere of influence in Southeast Asia has thus become increasingly important in context of the rise in Chinese footprint in South China Sea.