Prime Minister Narendra Modi&’s recent visit to Malaysia and Singapore helped give a fillip to India&’s Act East policy – to forge closer links with the 10-member Asean, an economically vibrant bloc that forms part of India&’s extended neighbourhood. His bilateral visit to Malaysia also helped bring New Delhi closer to Kuala Lumpur, which is considered close to Pakistan, say experts.

Modi, who visited the two nations from November 21-24, termed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations an economic powerhouse and praised the bloc&’s growth and stability.

 The 10-members bloc of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, together comprises 625 million people with a combined GDP of $2.31 trillion. The Asean has been growing at a steady 4.5 per cent for the last few years, bypassing the global downturn that hit the West majorly.

Modi was in Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia from November 21-22, for the 13th Asean-India Summit and the 10th East Asia Summit and then went to Singapore on a bilateral visit.

The prime minister&’s visit marks “further advancement” of India&’s Look East Policy, renamed Act East by the Modi government, say former envoys and experts Rajiv Bhatia and Sheel Kant Sharma.

India has said there will be a serious attempt to try and achieve the trade targets of $100 billion by 2020 and $200 billion by 2025 for India-Asean trade.

“India-Asean trade saw a bit of dip, but now it is back to $76 billion. The bilateral visits to Malaysia and Singapore and the agreements inked there have built up a very strong bond,” said Sharma, former SAARC secretary general.

“Asean, Asia and India, these are economies where growth has not been tepid as in Europe and the United States. The dip in exports globally is not happening here, and so the bilateral trade can go up,” he said.

“The Asean-India and East Asia Summits and the bilateral visits, these went very well and were very successful,” he added.

Bhatia said that India and Asean stressed that there would be serious attempt to try and achieve the trade targets.

“Connectivity is another factor that was stressed; physical and digital connectivity projects – and Line of Credit of $1 billion was announced for these projects. This is a good thing. Critics say that India only talks and does not deliver; Now, not only is a declaration being made, but the financial muscle is also being put together,” Bhatia, former envoy to Myanmar told thestatesman.com.

Bhatia said another highlight of Modi&’s trip was the talks on security issues.  “On the South China Sea, both at Asean and later at the EAS Summit, the prime minister enunciated India&’s position very clearly,” he said.

“Keeping these factors in mind, one can say that the Kuala Lumpur visit represents further advancement of India&’s Act East Policy,” Bhatia added.

With regard to the formal declaration of the Asean community, a unified economic community like the European Union, Sharma said that “India will be a very important factor there. They all realize the size of our economy and the prime minister detailed the kind of reforms being undertaken and the reforms underway that will spur investment and growth.”

Bhatia said that India has heartily welcomed the establishment of the Asean Community. “They have signed a new declaration on establishment of a community and the prime minister has said we will continue to remain embedded to the concept of centrality of Asean.”

According to Bhatia, India&’s relations with Singapore are very close, and it was Modi&’s visit to Malaysia that stands out. “What is happening with Singapore is not very surprising; Singapore continues to be a country which is very close to India. What is happening with Malaysia is particularly welcome.”

“Often observers say that among the 10 Asean countries, the list of countries to which India is very close often does not include Malaysia. But now, I think we must say that with this visit, India-Malaysia relations have also shown a positive swing. Considering such a large presence of Indian origin people in Malaysia and the positive meeting of the PMs (Modi and Malaysian PM Najib Razak),  we can say that Malaysia is gaining in traction or profile in India&’s Act East Policy,” he said.

“It is a good thing that Indian and Malaysian leaders are talking to each other, candidly and constructively, keeping in mind that Malaysia is also considered a very good friend of Pakistan and China. So we have to keep in mind the India-Pakistan-China triangle; in that sense if New Delhi-Kuala Lumpur relations are improving, it is a positive development,” Bhatia added.