The Modi government keeps losing the neighbourhood to score petty domestic points

Narendra Modi at the twentieth Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Jakarta in September 2023. Modi’s rhetoric about ASEAN doest not match the test of reality. Adek BERRY / AFP / Getty Images
09 April, 2024

“ASEAN is the central pillar of India’s Act East Policy,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared in Jakarta last year, at the twentieth Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit. Modi christened the Congress government’s “Look East Policy” of 1992—in which India sought to develop its economic and cultural relations with countries in the larger Asia and Pacific region—as the Act East policy in a rebranding exercise after he assumed power in 2014. Since then, the Modi government has often boasted about ASEAN’s central role in his policies. In a speech in 2018, Modi asserted that Southeast Asia was one of India’s top priorities, stating that “for India, no region now receives as much attention” as Southeast Asia.

Modi’s rhetoric, as with many of his foreign-policy claims, does not match the test of reality. The latest evidence comes from the State of Southeast Asia Survey 2024 report, published by the ASEAN Studies Centre. Presenting a snapshot of the prevailing attitudes among those in a position to inform or influence policy on regional issues in ASEAN countries, the report finds that India figures among the “partners of least strategic relevance” for the member countries of ASEAN. Only 0.6 percent of those surveyed said that India is the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia, in a list that is led by China (59.5 percent), followed by the United States (14.3 percent) and Japan (3.7 percent). Even the European Union (2.8 percent) and the United Kingdom (0.8 percent) are seen as more economically influential than India in the region.

India fares worse among countries with the most political and strategic influence in Southeast Asia, with only 0.4 percent of those surveyed naming the country. (China again tops the list, chosen by 43.9 percent of those surveyed, followed by the United States at 25.8 percent.) In what should come as a shock to those who believe that India has become a Vishwaguru—teacher of the world—under Modi, only 1.5 percent of those surveyed trusted India to “do the right thing” for global peace, security, prosperity and governance. The distrust levels were at 44.7 percent, with 40.6 percent of them agreeing that “India does not have the capacity or political will for global leadership.” That is the view about India after a decade of Modi as the prime minister, in a region he claimed receives greater attention than any other part of the world.

When asked about the country they would like to live in, India again finished at the bottom of the list, as the choice of only 0.7 percent of those surveyed. China, which neither claims to be the mother of democracy nor a Vishwaguru, figured higher as the chosen country of 4.8 percent of those surveyed. This survey is a severe indictment of Modi’s Act East Policy and rather humiliating for those in charge of the region in the government. No surprise, then, that the survey report did not make it into almost any of India’s major newspapers. With even the rupee hitting a record low twice in rapid succession not being considered worthy of prominent headlines, the absence of the ASEAN survey in Indian newspapers should not be surprising. It is a feature of Modi’s New India.