Opinion

Will the Trump presidency mean a change in India's Act East Policy in 2017?

Will the near parity that the US and China share turn into a keener contest?

The year 2017 may change some equations in the East Asian region. Will the near parity that the United States and China currently share turn into a keener contest? Will strained relations between India and China persist? Donald Trump’s election as the next US president casts the spotlight squarely on these inter-state relationships

An orthodox way of looking at India’s foreign policy is to see it as obsessed with “two-and-a-half countries”: the United States, China and Pakistan. This completely ignores the fact that the nation’s foreign policy is anchored in a broad and expanding worldview, stretching from Fortaleza to Fiji. One of its major components is the policy towards East Asia, usually known as the Act East Policy. Even as 2017 opens, this is the apt moment to reflect on its efficacy and what it can expect to achieve in the new year.

What also occasions this exercise now is that India’s dialogue partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which began in 1992, will complete 25 years this year. Likewise, its summit partnership, launched in 2002, and strategic partnership, established in 2012, are also set to complete 15 years and five years, respectively. The Indian government is likely to host a commemorative India-Asean summit later in the year, which will be preceded by an ambitious series of events and activities marking the historic milestone in the two sides’ journey together.

To comprehend and appreciate how India’s relationship with Asean and the larger East Asian region may evolve in the future, one needs to decode a term that figures in many analyses – “geopolitical environment”. A close look at developments in the region (and the world) since 2009, climaxing in the election of Donald Trump as the next US president, sets a new stage in which several inter-state relationships will need to be examined afresh.

Important equations

The region’s geopolitical dynamics will be largely moulded by four bilateral relationships and the well-being of one regional institution, Asean. Of the four relationships, the most important one is the US-China equation. At the global level, the US still retains its No 1 spot, but in Asia – especially East Asia – the perception is one of near parity between China, the challenger, and the US, the defending champion, a contest in which the latter has met with several setbacks.

It is in this backdrop of the Obama legacy that Trump enters the White House. The central question is whether the new administration will be tougher or softer on China. Scholars differ, for they have very little to go by except their own intuitive insights. Probably a likely scenario of uncertainty and unpredictability may prevail in which US-China tensions could rise in the short term.

As for the US-Japan relationship, one would rate high the prospect of it growing stronger because China’s assertive behaviour and the growing menace of North Korea as a nuclear weapons power, with fast expanding missile capacity, will impart a strong impetus to the Washington-Tokyo alliance.

The other two relationships are between India and China, and India and Japan. An objective view suggests that in the past two and a half years, the first has become strained, whereas the second has grown stronger. This trend became quite apparent in 2016, and will continue in the coming months. This makes it necessary for New Delhi to make a special effort to initiate a dialogue with the Trump team (which it has already done) and to sustain it politically so that India-US cooperation gathers further momentum in the future.

As regards Asean, a glaring irony marked its voyage through 2016. At the year’s beginning, it turned itself with much fanfare, from an association into a community with three pillars: political-security, economic, and socio-cultural. But, on the other hand, in dealing with China and its continuing flouting of international law in respect of the South China Sea, Asean displayed its utter vulnerability and state of disarray. This trend may continue unless the US, Japan and India work in unison to provide it strong support, thus empowering it to cope with the hegemon next door.

Looking beyond

All this points to a clear conclusion: the Act East Policy needs to be further strengthened. Its strategic dimension and objective to enhance maritime security cooperation with interested Asean and extra-Asean powers should be accorded priority. While for diplomatic reasons, our faith in “Asean Unity and Centrality” may remain unchanged and our participation in the plethora of its institutions may continue, New Delhi should pay higher attention to deepening and diversifying a few key bilateral relationships: Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam, and Indonesia and Myanmar too.

India also needs to look more seriously at the existing agenda of cooperation, covered by the Act East Policy. Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations should be brought to a swift conclusion in 2017, a goal that could not be met in 2016. Two initiatives launched by the Narendra Modi government, namely a special Line of Credit of $1 billion for connectivity projects with Asean countries, and a Special Purpose Vehicle of $100 million for industrial projects in CMLV (Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam) countries, should be operationalised as soon as possible. The visibility of two institutions set up recently – Asean-India Centre, New Delhi, and Asean Study Centre, Shillong – may be enhanced. As to the two flagship projects, that is the Trilateral Highway project and Kaladan Multi-modal Transport project, they, it is hoped, will be ready before the end of the decade.

Finally, recent feedback from the strategic community and media in our northeastern states indicates a continuing feeling of discontent over progress in forging links with Southeast Asia, particularly Myanmar. This needs to be addressed more effectively and holistically. The occasional car rally is welcome, but may not be enough.

This article was first published by Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read the original article here.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.