It is a smart diplomatic move to invite all the 10 Asean leaders as chief guests to India’s 70th Republic Day celebrations
Ever since the ‘Look East Policy’ was unveiled by the former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s, India, realizing that it has to “go beyond the confines of SAARC if it had to reap the benefits out of the economic potential of the South East Asian region and establish itself as a regional power”, shedding its earlier reservations, slowly moved closer to it. As a result, it acquired the status of full dialog partner of Asean in 1995.
As India continued its efforts at cultivating multifaceted relationship with Asean, it became a summit-level partner of Asean from 2002 onwards. For their part, Asean countries, besides fostering closer economic cooperation, had also exhibited eagerness to engage India in discussions on political and security issues as well. This mutual interest ultimately led the two to sign the landmark agreement, the ‘ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity Agreement’ in November 2004.
Economics had indeed played a key role in fuelling India’s relations with Asean. After India became a full dialog partner in 1995, the ASEAN-India Joint Cooperation Committee and ASEAN-India Working Group on Trade and Investment was set up. This led to Asean to emerge as India’s fourth largest trading partner. Currently, trade between India and Asean stands almost at the same level of $70 bn as that of China, but with a deficit of only $14 bn. In the areas of investment too, significant achievements have been recorded, with Singapore emerging as the largest investor in India. This relationship has also benefitted the infrastructural development in India, with India becoming the largest market for Malaysian construction industry. India too is involved in the oil and gas sector in Myanmar, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Culturally too, India and Asean countries are close to each other, for the cultural bonds in terms of Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim inheritances pull them close. The visit of the dance troupes from the 10 Asean nations to present Ramayana in its picturesque beauty “as a prelude to the Asean-India commemorative Summit on January 25th” is one such example of deep cultural bonds of India with Asean countries. Indeed, looking at the historical link—“Hindu ideas of kingshipand Sanskrit as the sacred language of court and religious rituals could be … found across Southeast Asia…with rituals and great temples and palaces …the symbolism and names and texts were Indian”—the authors of the book, ‘The Asean Miracle’, Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffery Sng recommend strengthening tourism cooperation between India and Asean countries.
It is against this backdrop that at the dawn of 2018, India celebrated the 25th anniversary of its association with the Asean as a dialog-partner by hosting the ‘Asean-India commemorative Summit’ on January 25th in New Delhi under the theme of “shared values, common destiny”. And in a smart diplomatic move, India invited all the 10 leaders of Asean—Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam and Laos—as the chief guests to the Republic Day celebrations.
It is obvious that the trigger for the “historic and unprecedented” participation of 10 Asean leaders as chief guests in India’s Republic day celebrations is China. It is evident that realizing the Asean countries’ expectation that India should serve as a balance to China’s heft, India wants to deepen its strategic relations with Asean countries to blunt the influence of China in the region. This can be gauged from what Prime Minister Modi said at the summit, of course, without any direct reference to China’s aggression in the South China Sea: “India shares the Asean vision for rule-based societies and values of peace. We are committed to working with Asean nations to enhance collaboration in the maritime domain. It highlights the importance of our strategic partnership placing Asean at the center of India’s Act East Policy. Our friendship has been nurtured by our shared culture and civilization linkages.”
With the US under Trump showing signs of disengaging not only from multilateral economic engagements across Indo-Pacific but also militarily and China, with its willingness to provide credit support for infrastructure and other projects in the region, becoming increasingly assertive, Asean countries are obviously looking to India to counter China’s hegemony and maintain balanced equations in the region. Indeed some of them privately fear or loathe China’s heavy-handed military and economic clout. A senior fellow at Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations observes, “In India they see a global giant—a huge country that is not as big as China on trade, but one that is willing to say to Vietnam and the Philippines, ‘We are with you on this question’. They are ready to stand up to China.” Even Japan, Australia and the US endorse the idea of India playing a more active strategic role in the Indo-Pacific region.
It is in this context that the Asean’s oft repeated complaint that “India doesn’t do enough”, though they do not elaborate on this, needs to be addressed by India. However, one expectation of them clearly emerges: Asean expect India to rise peacefully and work proactively towards greater trade integration with the regional bloc by swiftly concluding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. As against this, India is looking for differential tariff schedules and concessions in services liberalization. But to enhance its own value chain integration process with Asean countries it is imperative for India to show more flexibility in the negotiations and conclude RCEP soon. That also comes handy for India in its efforts to pursue its application for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) to its logical end, besides establishing itself as an alternative power to afford stable balance of power in Asia.
So, now that the celebrations are over, it is time for India to act hard but swiftly: it must imaginatively navigate through the complex contours—if required even going for bilateral partnerships with specific Asean members—and work for positioning itself as a stable balance of power in Asia.