Narendra Modi’s grand ASEAN outreach: Can PM overcome complex geopolitical challenges with his personal touch?
For all of Modi's ambition and optimism regarding bilateral ties with ASEAN, there still exists a mismatch between India and ASEAN's expectations from each other and capabilities in meeting those expectations
Narendra Modi pulled off nothing short of a diplomatic coup in arranging for heads of 10 ASEAN States to attend the 69th Republic Day parade as chief guests. It went as far as grand gestures go, providing for a compelling spectacle that indicated a rise in India's strategic profile and its willingness to engage with the South East, a region with which it enjoys historical and civilisational ties. It was preceded by the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit to mark the 25th year of bilateral engagement, coinciding with 15 years of dialogue mechanism and fifth year of strategic ties.
The occasion wasn't lacking in symbolism, and the prime minister stressed on the retreat's theme of 'Shared Values, Common Destiny' to drive home the point that India and ASEAN's rise is irrevocably linked. The Delhi Declaration made all the right noises on keeping the vital maritime routes of trade in Indo-Pacific open and free from coercion. China, the elephant in the room, wasn't mentioned but there was little scope for doubt.
The Declaration stressed on freedom of navigation and overflight and peaceful resolution of disputes through "universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)". It also called for "full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and... early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC)".
For a country that is perceived to be perennially punching below its weight in being assertive about its sphere of influence, India's desire to build a broad-based strategic partnership with the ASEAN nations and increase its profile in South East Asia was evident.
Also evident was Modi's penchant for stressing on the personal over the formal in achieving his goals. All 10 heads of States from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei were treated to personalised hospitality. Media reports indicate there were customised upholstery for the leaders during their hotel stay and their room keys depicted respective flags. The logistical efficiency and attention to detail that went behind the gesture shouldn't be underestimated. India's foreign policy is being subjected to personal dynamism, and Modi has no intention in underplaying his hand. And it seems to be working.
As Kavi Chongkittavorn, senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Thailand, writes in The Straits Times, "Modi and ASEAN chair Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have the right chemistry and feel at ease with one another. Otherwise, the ASEAN leaders would not have accepted the invitation to join the Republic Day parade together, a first in its history."
The author suggested that though India cannot hope to match China "in terms of project proposals and financial commitments", it has "Modi, who has already established close personal ties with the ASEAN leaders".
Yet, questions remain. Can personal bonds manage complex geopolitical challenges and conflicts? Can a leader infuse greater depth and bring more urgency in bilateral ties through personal enterprise? This question assumes increasing significance as India goes about trying to balance China's rise. Coping with China's assertive ascent requires, among other things, a certain nimble-footedness in foreign policy.
Modi has doubtless introduced a dash of spontaneity and a "can-do" attitude to policy making, but his efforts must confront the recurrent themes of bureaucratic inertia, limited resources and sluggish execution of connectivity projects that continue to plague India's geopolitical outreach.
The flux in global order — especially in South East Asia — arising out of Donald Trump's 'America First' policy, China's revanchist posture and India's own (if hesitant) rise presents a challenge and an opportunity. Whether or not India is able to harness the flux depends on its ability to accept its limitations and optimise current relationships.
Nowhere is this tension between India's intent and achievement more evident than in its 'Act East' policy. For all of Modi's ambition and optimism regarding bilateral ties with ASEAN, there still exists a mismatch between India and ASEAN's expectations from each other and capabilities in meeting those expectations.
India's hesitation in committing to a truer free-trade regimen (such as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation or APEC) at the risk of exposing its agricultural sector and the complex dynamism between India, ASEAN nations and China present other enduring challenges.
There remains also the small matter of unity between ASEAN nations. The Chinese influence has bent the regional geopolitical context to such an extent that for India to take ASEAN as a strategic bloc and accordingly operationalise its security posture remains problematic. For all their fulminations about Beijing's revanchist posture on South China Sea, the ASEAN nations have repeatedly failed to reach an agreement.
We saw this, for instance, in 2012 when for the first time in its 45-year history, the 10 nations failed to issue a joint statement over disagreement on South China Sea. The Philippines and Vietnam blamed Cambodia, which in turn blamed others.
Five years later, in 2017, during another ASEAN Summit, Philippines had revised its posture with President Rodrigo Duterte declaring that "any discussion about the fortification of reclaimed islands in the South China Sea by China was useless, and that he did not seek any 'trouble' with China".
This makes policymaking hazardous for India, not the least because it has its own limitations in posing as the region's security guarantor.
As professor Harsh V Pant of King's College, London, writes in The Diplomat, "India's capacity to provide development assistance, market access, and security guarantees remains limited, and ASEAN's inclination to harness New Delhi's offerings for regional stability remains circumscribed by its sensitivities to other powers. The interests and expectations of the two sides remain far from aligned, preventing them from having candid conversations and realistic assessments."
The temptation to mask the absence of an operational roadmap in ties with grand gestures remains constant. India must not fall into that trap. The focus must be on acknowledging ground realities and working on those. For instance, there are 30 different platforms for cooperation between the two sides with seven ministerial dialogues and annual leaders’ summit. To put it in perspective, China has 48 sectoral mechanisms to cover every aspect of bilateral ties.
India enjoys a miserable reputation in completing connectivity projects. These have emerged as the biggest geoeconomic tools to increase influence. The Delhi Declaration called for "early completion" of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project, that is expected to also include Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam within its ambit. This project has seen several delays and bottlenecks.
Executive director Suthiphand Chirathivat and PhD researcher Anupama Devendrakumar of Chulalongkorn University tell Devirupa Mitra in The Wire that India's failure in completing these projects in time creates a wrong impression about its intent: "These projects open up channels to reinvigorate historical connections and further socio-cultural engagements and build trust. From an economic perspective, connectivity reduces trade costs. Mere tariff reduction through free trade agreements is not enough for trade to grow."
Bilateral trade between ASEAN and India has gone up from $2.9 billion in 1993 to $58.4 billion in 2016 but this is still only 2.6 percent of ASEAN's external trade in 2016, as the Singapore prime minister recently said. The uptick has been constrained by India's refusal to open up its economy in the way the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) would demand. The completion of that agreement is still on the agenda.
India and ASEAN are natural partners with a 2,000-year-old history and a proximate geography that favours close alignment. A focus between the partners has upgraded from economic to socio-cultural and strategic. Yet deficit remains in areas of expectations, trust and delivery. These will require more than symbolic gestures.
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