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Regional geopolitics

Significance of celebration of several jubilees ~ 25 years of ASEAN-India dialogue partnership

The unprecedented participation of 10 heads of ASEAN states/governments as guests of honour at the Republic Day parade was a landmark development in the expanding role of India in international affairs. Celebration of several jubilees ~ 25 years of dialogue partnership, 10 years of summit-level dialogue and five years of strategic partnership ~ in such a grandiose manner signifies India being invested in ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) and the recognition by the leaders of this region of the country’s major role in its future.

This development needs to frame any perspective for an analysis of the growing relationship between India and ASEAN. This organisation has been in existence since 1967 when, at the height of the Vietnam war, five countries, namely the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, decided upon a modicum of cooperation amongst themselves in the face of an expanding threat of Communism, domestic as well as regional, spurred by Mao’s China. Its first summit took place in 1976 following Communist victories in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia following the US withdrawal from Vietnam.

Geopolitical dynamics underwent a sea-change at the end of the Cold War in 1991 when diminished presence of the US in the region provided the space to this organisation to fashion a regional security order, to admit the former Communist adversary nations as members and to create a wide network of dialogue relationships with extra-regional powers.

For a then ‘modernising’ but isolated ~ post-Tienanmen massacre ~ China, the organisation provided the ‘comfort’ to engage in multilateral diplomacy, and for India an opportunity to ‘Look East’ with its own peculiar circumstances of the loss of a friend in the Soviet Union and the near economic bankruptcy driving the new foreign policy and domestic reform agendas. Even then, India was seen by some ASEAN leaders as a kind of ‘balancer’ to China.

Since then, regional geopolitics has taken yet another churn although ASEAN considerations towards India remain the same. In a survey of regional geopolitics in the course of his talk on Singapore’s priorities as the current ASEAN chair, on 5 December last year, the Singapore Foreign Minister, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, described the US in a state of “introspection” about its future role as China and India rise; there were expressions of anxiety, in his speech, about the Korean tensions and about the South China Sea, and exhortations about the unity of ASEAN as it faces its internal and external challenges.

Clearly, China’s assertiveness in the region, militarily and economically, compound these challenges as ASEAN as an organisation endeavours to maintain its cohesion and ‘centrality’ ~ and steering capacity ~ in the South-East Asian security architecture.

Even as a wide range of issues were discussed in the summit meetings in New Delhi befitting this long-lasting relationship, both sides had a convergent focus on the broader strategic picture. The New Delhi Summit ‘Retreat’, an informal, off-the-record sharing of ideas, had ‘Maritime Security and Cooperation’ as the sole agenda. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) briefing on the ‘Retreat’ mentioned an agreement to establish a mechanism to address “both traditional and non-traditional challenges”.

In his opening remarks at the plenary session, Prime Minister Modi, laying stress on a “rules-based order for the oceans and the seas”, elaborated on the scope of the maritime cooperation to include “humanitarian and disaster relief efforts, security cooperation and freedom of navigation.” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his opening remarks, stated that “India makes a major contribution to regional affairs, helping to keep the regional architecture open, balanced and inclusive”.

What shape this maritime cooperation will take in a strategic sense will unfold in the near future. Asean has not embraced the expression ‘Indo-Pacific’, which the Chinese do not like, and the Singapore Foreign Minister in his speech did not go into the terminological hairsplitting between ‘Indo-Pacific’ and ‘Asia Pacific’, adding that it “really translates into the question of what prospect do you see for India in the next couple of decades”.

At the same time, the Delhi Declaration, issued after the conclusion of the summit, expresses support for “full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea” and for “an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct (COC)” in that body of water; although such references are made in bilateral documents with ASEAN’s interlocutors, it is important to note that DOC is a bilateral document between it and China and COC refers to a recent commitment between them, after considerable pressure on China, to initiate negotiations for a legally binding agreement between them for the South China Sea.

Despite a nuanced position on India’s strategic role in South-east Asia, ASEAN recognises that this is essential for its strengthening and its centrality in the regional security architecture under threat substantially due to the Chinese assertiveness. It also embraces the dimensions which were identified, for the purposes of the summit, as the 3C’s ~ Commerce, Connectivity and Culture.

An entire agenda has been fleshed out in the Delhi Declaration, including, inter-alia, the effective implementation of India-Asean Free Trade Area (FTA), swift conclusion of “mutually beneficial” Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), better digital, air and maritime connectivity, other forms of economic cooperation, promotion of civilizational ties, health cooperation, tourism, education, women empowerment, environment, and connectivity etc. These are, of course, in addition to an elaborate agenda of political and security cooperation to “ensure an open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based regional architecture” through various ASEAN-led mechanisms.

Over these decades, a bilateral cooperative relationship, reflecting ASEAN’s own institutional spectrum, has evolved. There are 30 dialogue mechanisms across all sectors, including seven at the ministerial level. Yet, there is criticism, largely motivated by comparison with China, about this relationship still being insufficiently developed due to inadequate effort on India’s part. There is recognition in bilateral documents that more needs to be done. Connectivity projects in Myanmar and Thailand through India’s North-Eastern states are behind schedule as China’s ‘Belt-and-Ruled-Initiative’ (BRI) projects proceed at a rapid pace. The current trade at $ 71 billion pales in contrast to China’s at $514.8 billion, with some observers commenting that India is not yet part of ASEAN’s production value chain.

Some of the criticism is fair although the entire blame need not be placed at India’s door. Whilst ASEAN-China FTA encompasses trade in goods, services and investment, in the Indian case FTA in services and investment has not come into effect due to lack of ratification on the part of Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines. Also, in the RCEP negotiations, according to news reports, Indian concerns about cheap Chinese goods and adequate provision to support its strengths in services and investment are yet to be addressed by the other participating countries.

Although the ASEAN countries are sensitive about regional tensions, especially in the South China Sea, anxiety about the necessity for a certain balancing against China’s increasing assertiveness provides the motivation for this new high in the India-ASEAN relationship. The salience of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ construct, the revival of the ‘Quad’ dialogue process between India, the US, Japan and Australia and the trilateral Malabar naval exercises, involving India, the US and Japan, alternating between the Bay of Bengal and the western Pacific region are indication of India’s desire to play that role.

Post-Doklam, India’s standing as a credible regional player has risen in the eyes of the South-east Asian leaders as, indeed, in regions farther afield. In sum, a new chapter in the recalibration of the balance of power relationship in the region has begun where each stakeholder seeks to pursue its own geopolitical interests.

The writer is former Indian Ambassador to the Philippines and writes on maritime affairs. He can be reached at [email protected]

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