MANILA—India and other "middle powers" are "stepping up their games" in Southeast Asia to fill the power void left by the United States when it decided to focus on its "America First policy," an analyst said Friday.
This week, India hosted leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in its capital New Delhi for a series of meetings, as it seeks to forge closer economic and maritime ties with the 10-member regional bloc.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi underscored his administration's "Act East" policy during the summit by pledging to boost investment in different Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines, where Indian firms vowed to pour in $1.25 billion in the IT, renewable energy, infrastructure and pharmaceuticals industries.
"What we see is the so-called middle powers trying to step up their game given that China is gaining a lot especially in the past in terms of influence in the region," maritime law expert Prof. Jay Batongbacal said in an interview on ANC's "Early Edition."
"We see that middle powers like India are trying hard to keep up. Similar efforts have been made by Japan, and Australia has also tried to ratchet up its game in order to fill in the void the US was leaving by turning inward."
Political experts observed that the US influence in Asia dwindled after US President Donald Trump pushed to prioritize internal concerns over the country's foreign interests.
Last year, most world leaders who attended the ASEAN Summit in Manila used the term "Indo-Pacific" instead of "Asia-Pacific" to distance the Southeast Asian region away from the growing power of China, and closer to the US-Japan-Australia-India alliance.
Batongbacal said the middle powers' interest to "counterbalance" forces in the disputed South China Sea will benefit the Philippines and other countries that have been feuding with China over overlapping territorial claims.
"More participation by other powers would help in trying to address the dominance of China in the South China Sea because we have additional external powers basically having common interest in freedom of navigation," he said.
India's willingness to deepen ties with ASEAN member countries is also an opportunity for the region to "diversify relationships," Batongbacal said.
"By diversifying relationships, you're able to maintain some kind of autonomy. You don't immediately become subject to any power," he said.