The government’s bid to use soft or more precisely ‘tech diplomacy’ to woo its neighbours has taken a other step forward with the government announcing the award of 1,000 PhD fellowships to students from ASEAN countries. They will be able to study at any of the 23 Indian institutes of technology of their choice, across the country.
The move fulfills a long-expressed desire by these countries to learn from and benefit from these institutes of excellence. It also gives a fillip to the government’s ‘Act East’ policy.
Speaking at the launch, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said, ‘This move follows our Prime Minister Modi’s promise in January 2018 at the 25th Anniversary of the ASEAN-Indian Commemorative Summit. With a total budget outlay of Rs 300 crore it is the largest capacity building program between India and the ASEAN countries.’
‘We know today that the great driving force in the modern world is technology and there are serious concerns for societies today who are not able to keep abreast with technology. This is the underlying logic for which we are offering these scholarships to students from ASEAN countries.’
Human Resource Development Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ stressed that the move would help promote cultural relations between nations. ‘The fellowships will strengthen our cultural, technical and financial relations. It will foster the three Cs — culture, commerce and connectivity between our nations. This launch of 1000 PhD fellowships at IITs will go a long way in strengthening ties between India and ASEAN nations,’ he said.
According to an MEA release, ASEAN students can apply under the web portal http://asean.iitd.ac.in/. The first batch of ASEAN scholars will be admitted in January 2020 and staggered over three years 2019-2020, 2020-2021 and 2021-2022. The Ministry of Human Resource Development will provide the scholarships along with a yearly grant for living expenses.
India’s IITs have served as a useful ‘soft power’ tool but till recently the government was reluctant to exploit their ‘diplomatic’ potential. In 2005, Singapore’s late prime minister Lee Kuan Yew stated that ‘India’s institutes of technology and management are world class.’ He had then even requested the Indian government to set up IITs in his country for which he said, Singapore was prepared to pay.
India only opened the IIT gates to foreign nationals in 2016 and it is only now that IITs are fully being used as a policy tool to woo nations. Such a move the government hopes can help create a ‘feel good factor’ and help promote Indian interests in other areas such as marine piracy and countering Chinese influence in the region especially through the BRI. Currently, reports suggest that ASEAN could overtake the European Union as China’s largest trading partner, something that Indian policy-makers will be mindful of. India needs to use its ‘tech’ leverage along with its other ‘hard’ diplomacy tools if it is to safeguard its interests in the region.