India's ASEAN overtures a calculated answer to China’s unrestrained expansionism in the Asia-Pacific region

The landmark presence of 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as Chief Guests on India’s Republic day is New Delhi’s calculated response to the shifting geo-political, geo-strategic and geo-economic landscape. The global turning points in recent years have been China’s unprecedented economic and military rise, the visible decline of America’s global pre-eminence, and a wider spectrum of conflict in the Middle East. All these are forcing emerging powers into a search for new partners, new markets and new alliances. In this fast-changing scenario, a role for Asia, with India and China at the forefront is inevitable. The ongoing tensions and strategic competition between New Delhi and Beijing make it amply clear that India’s foreign policy focus in the next few years will be in the eastward direction.

India’s links with ASEAN countries have strong historical, cultural and economic roots. Having celebrated 25 years of dialogue, 15 years of summit-level interaction and 5 years of strategic partnership, India and ASEAN have improved their relationship to the extent that ASEAN has now become the anchor of India’s much talked about ‘Act East policy’. India’s sectoral dialogue mechanisms and ministerial-level interactions with ASEAN now range from external affairs to defence, from connectivity to commerce, from energy to environment and much more.

Beginning in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited most of the ASEAN countries, providing greater substance to India-ASEAN summits. Aimed at enhancing India’s strategic profile in Southeast Asia, the upgrade from ‘Look East Policy’ (LEP) to ‘Act East Policy’ (AEP) with ASEAN at its core has been among the most significant initiatives of the Modi government.

Qualitatively speaking, there may not be much to differentiate LEP and AEP. However the latter's focus has unquestionably been more on fostering connectivity and strategic cooperation. With this, Modi’s desire for developing a regional convergence of India’s geo-politics with its geo-economic interests has clearly been in evidence.

 Indias ASEAN overtures a calculated answer to China’s unrestrained expansionism in the Asia-Pacific region

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the ASEAN leaders at the ASEAN India Commemorative Summit. PTI

By inviting ASEAN leaders on Republic Day, India has reiterated its intent in making ASEAN the core of Asia’s drive towards peace and prosperity. China’s relentless march across land and sea via One Belt, One Road is generally believed to be an attempt to contain New Delhi’s abilities and influence. India’s sense of civilisational pride and self-confidence as an emerging power can never allow it to accept China’s supremacy in its own neighbourhood. Over the past few years, India has been making concerted attempts to beef up its infrastructure, and its border posture has also become stiffer by standing up to China’s incursions. New Delhi has already taken decisive steps to offset China’s power by getting closer to Washington and Tokyo, who have their own reasons to keep China’s power in check. The newly formed Quadrilateral comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US is a momentous step in that direction.

Nevertheless, the Modi government realises that these steps will not suffice. India will need to expand its reach not just to militarily counter China’s alarming projection of regional and global power, but also to present an alternative growth model (centred on soft power) to China’s centralised and authoritarian one in order to claim Asia’s natural leadership. Here comes the role of India’s robust outreach to ASEAN. New Delhi is anxious to assure ASEAN leadership that its participation in Quadrilateral is not tantamount to diverting its attention away from ASEAN.

India’s limited capacity to provide market access and security guarantees have often bred a palpable sense of disillusionment on both sides. This has to change, and vigorous efforts need to be made to align the interests and expectations of both sides. In November 2017, when India and Singapore signed an agreement to strengthen maritime security in the Straits of Malacca, Beijing quickly expressed its displeasure and issued a demarche to Singapore. Clearly, ASEAN countries are increasingly looking to India to help ensure smooth access to vital sea routes, while degrading the vulnerability quotient inherent in the face of China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea. As Vietnam and Philippines are grappling to secure some disputed areas from China’s encroachment, ASEAN would like India to focus more on enhancing connectivity and development of sea lanes.

India cannot afford to remain ambiguous as far as Chinese expansionism in Asia-Pacific is concerned. China invariably views Asia-Pacific coinage as a direct threat to its hegemony in Southeast Asia. Thus, New Delhi needs to back its words with action on the ground, including tangible outcomes from defence and security cooperation with ASEAN. With growing American short-sightedness and unpredictability under the Donald Trump administration, ASEAN is keen to see India's emergence as a potential counterweight to China. However Beijing will most likely aggressively reach out to ASEAN countries once their leaders depart from New Delhi for trying to step out of the Middle Kingdom’s ambit. It is hoped that Modi has given them enough assurance of India’s support, putting to rest all fears of consequences.

During his address at the India-ASEAN summit in November 2017, Modi strongly pitched for establishing a rules-based regional security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region — now central to global politics — displaying convergence of strategic interests between India and other major powers. Identifying terrorism and extremism as major challenges facing the region, Modi appealed for developing a common approach for countering terrorism, an indirect reference to China’s uncritical support to Pakistan. His stress on freedom of navigation, an irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, and a thorough probe into North Korea’s nuclear proliferation linkages were clearly aimed at exposing China.

The Delhi Declaration — issued after Thursday’s plenary session with ASEAN leaders — clearly underlines India’s concerns on the issue by mentioning “cross-border movement of terrorists and foreign terrorist fighters” and making a commitment to counter the challenge through “close cooperation”. The declaration will further embolden India in its bid to get Masood Azhar listed as a global terrorist, and to put more pressure on Pakistan to take action against Mumbai terror attack mastermind Hafiz Saeed.

ASEAN is India’s fourth-largest trading partner, accounting for more than 10 percent of India’s global trade. Despite growing trade linkages between India and ASEAN, poor physical connectivity remains a key challenge to meet greater ASEAN expectations of integration with India. Modi government’s shift in emphasis by moving India away from SAARC to BIMSTEC and BBIN can be seen as an integral component of AEP. Connecting India’s northeast with its closest eastern neighbours and further with Southeast Asia would open up more trade routes, ensuring greater economic opportunities for the region.

There is an urgent need for both India and ASEAN to leverage existing platforms to strengthen collaboration in cyber security strategies coupled with security cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region. There is huge potential for India-ASEAN collaboration in both ocean-centred security cooperation and economic development as well as in creating a collective vision for a rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific region, which cannot be allowed to remain hostage to China’s unrestrained expansionism and unilateralism.

The author is an assistant professor at the Department of International Affairs and Security Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Rajasthan. He is also the coordinator at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in Jaipur.

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Updated Date: Jan 26, 2018 13:03:46 IST