Musings from afar

Why India and ASEAN leaders need to create a roadmap for the future

India’s efforts to make itself relevant to the region come at a time of great turmoil in the Asian strategic landscape.

 |  Musings from afar  |  4-minute read |   26-01-2018
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There is no denying the fact that India’s engagement with Southeast Asia has grown by leaps and bounds over the last two decades. From "Look East" to "Act East", it has been a long journey which has now been firmly anchored in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

Structural changes

At a time when we are talking about wider structural changes shaping the Indo-Pacific region and India is reimaging its strategic geography, the latter’s outreach to Southeast Asia becomes all the more important. The year 2017 was marked by a celebratory tone, with India and the ASEAN commemorating 25 years of their partnership, 15 years of summit-level interaction, and five years of strategic partnership. The presence of the leaders from the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) at this year’s Republic Day celebrations underscores the commitment of the two sides to take this relationship forward.

Despite its historical and cultural links with East and Southeast Asia, India in its post-Independence foreign policy largely tended to ignore the region. The structural constraints of the Cold War proved too formidable despite India’s geographic proximity to the East Asian region. It was the end of the Cold War that really brought East and Southeast Asia back to the forefront of India’s foreign policy horizons.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union radically transformed the structure of the then prevailing international system and brought to the fore new challenges and opportunities for countries like India. India was forced to reorient its approach toward international affairs in general and toward East Asia in particular. The government of PV Narasimha Rao launched its "Look East" policy in the early 1990s explicitly to initiate Delhi’s re-engagement with East Asia.

Indian engagement with Southeast Asia in the post-Cold War era has assumed significant proportions and remains a top foreign policy priority for the Indian leadership. India has been a full dialogue partner of the ASEAN since 1995, a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, the regional security forum, since 1996, and is a founder-member of the East Asian Summit launched in December 2005.

India has also been a summit partner of ASEAN on par with China, Japan and South Korea since 2002. Over the years, India has also come to have extensive economic and trade linkages with various countries in the region even as there has been a gradual strengthening of security ties. Successive governments have made it clear that New Delhi’s foreign policy priority will continue to be East and Southeast Asia.


Aggressive stance

India’s efforts to make itself relevant to the region come at a time of great turmoil in the Asian strategic landscape. Events in recent years have underlined China’s aggressive stance against rivals and US allies in Asia, and there may be more tension to come. With its political and economic rise, Beijing has started trying to dictate the boundaries of acceptable behaviour to its neighbours.

As a result, regional states have already started reassessing their strategies, and a cursory anti-China balancing coalition is emerging. India’s role becomes critical in such an evolving balance of power. India’s "Act East" policy is part of this larger dynamic. As New Delhi has reached out to its partners in South and Southeast Asia, the regional states have also shown an unprecedented reciprocal interest in Indian foreign policy priorities.

China is too big and too powerful to be ignored by the regional states. But states in China’s vicinity are now seeking to expand their strategic space by reaching out to other regional and global powers. Smaller states in the region are now looking at India to act as a balancer in view of China’s growing influence and America’s supposed retrenchment from the region in the near future, while larger states see India as an attractive engine for regional growth.

Convincing job

To live up to its full potential and meet the region’s expectations, India must do a more convincing job of emerging as a credible strategic partner of the region. Neither India nor the regional states in East Asia have incentive to define their relationship in opposition to China. But they are certainly interested in leveraging their ties with other states to gain benefits from China and bring a semblance of equality in their relationships. Great power politics in the region have only just begun.

While New Delhi is seeking to expand economic integration and interdependence with the region and is trying to develop strong security linkages, the partnership with ASEAN is yet to reach its full potential. Differences remain on the future architecture of regional trade and defence ties are yet to mature.

India has been keen on promoting its soft power linkages with the region, which are quite significant but the efforts remain tentative at best. As Indian and ASEAN leaders celebrate their past achievements, they need to be clear that a clear forward looking roadmap is needed. Not only the region but the wider world will be watching carefully to see if India can indeed match the region’s growing expectations.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: Significance of Modi-Trump meet at ASEAN Summit in Manila


Harsh V Pant Harsh V Pant

The writer is Professor of International Relations at King's College London. His most recent book is India's Afghan Muddle (HarperCollins).

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