Addressing the 12th India-Asean meeting in Nay Pyi Taw a few days back, the external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, rightly underlined that “the ASEAN-India strategic partnership owes its strength to the fact that our ‘Look East’ to ASEAN meets your ‘Look West’ towards India”. Swaraj has done well to reassure the region that the new Indian government would like to stand with them, taking the trajectories of common interests higher in the coming years, both in terms of achievement and relevance to the bilateral Asean+1 relationship and of the multilateral ambition at the regional and global levels. This is important because there is a lot of concern in the region about the viability of New Delhi’s role as regional balancer, a role that became a casualty of the policy paralysis in the previous government. Ironically, this happened at a time when the region has been passing through one of the most critical phases in its evolution.
This was evident, last week, when China dismissed a new proposal by the United States of America for a freeze on hostile actions that could heighten tensions in the disputed South China Sea, leaving Washington unable to overturn an impression that it can do little to back up allies at odds with Beijing over the contested waters and islands. The Asean remains divided and has not been able to mount a credible challenge to China. The Asean member-states have largely supported American suggestions for an easing of tensions, including the start of negotiations for a binding regional “code of conduct” to govern activities involving conflicting claims. But China has resisted, and progress on the code has been slow. This has opened up crucial geopolitical space for India in the region.
In 2012, India and the ten-member Association of South East Asian Nations marked their 20 years of partnership with a commemorative summit in New Delhi. The highlight of the summit was the conclusion of talks on Free Trade Agreement on services and investment, which is expected to increase bilateral trade to $200 billion by 2022 and lead to talks on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which also includes Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. As the then Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, had underlined, together India and the Asean states “constitute a community of 1.8 billion people, representing one-fourth of humanity, with a combined GDP of $3.8 trillion” and therefore “it is only natural that India should attach the highest priority to its relationship with ASEAN”.
India was admitted as sectoral dialogue partner of the Asean in 1992 and went on to become a full-fledged dialogue partner in 1996. There has been a significant increase in India-Asean trade from $42 billion in 2008 to $80 billion in 2011-12. This trade relationship will get further boost with the two signing the FTA on services and investment. The FTA on goods was signed in 2009 despite some significant opposition in India and, since its implementation in 2011, India has been keen on expanding trade in services in order to leverage its own strengths. The relationship is now officially ‘strategic’ with the two sides deciding to elevate their ties from a mere dialogue partnership.
Despite its historical and cultural links with 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 Southeast Asian region. It was the end of the Cold War that really brought this region back to the forefront of India’s foreign policy horizons. And the then prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, whose contributions are often ignored in Indian foreign policy discourse, was visionary enough to recognize the importance of engaging with the world’s most economically dynamic region. Since then, India’s ‘Look East’ policy, which originated primarily focused on trade and economics, has now attained a distinct security dimension. As India’s economic linkages with various countries in the region have become more extensive, demands have grown for a gradual strengthening of security ties at a time of China’s rapid ascendance in the global hierarchy.
China is clearly too big and too powerful to be ignored by the regional states. But the 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 to India to act as a balancer in view of China’s growing influence and a broader leadership vacuum in the region, while larger states see India as an attractive engine for regional growth. To live up to its full potential and meet the region’s expectations, India will have to do a more convincing job of emerging as a credible strategic partner of the region. India, for its part, would not only like greater economic integration with the fastest growing region in the world but would also like to challenge China on its periphery. But India will have to do much more to emerge as a serious player in the region. After all, China’s trade with Asean in 2012 was a whopping $400 billion and it remains far better integrated into the region.
The rupture in China-Asean ties over the last two years has provided India with a key opening in the region to underline its credentials as a responsible regional stakeholder. On the one hand, China’s aggressive pursuit of its territorial claims has aggravated regional tensions. On the other, despite the Obama administration’s famous ‘pivot’ towards the Asia-Pacific, there are doubts about the ability of Washington to manage regional tensions effectively. India’s proximity to the region and its growing capabilities make it a natural partner of most states in Southeast Asia. It is not without significance, that the vision document released at the 2012 summit talks of promoting maritime cooperation and “strengthening cooperation to ensure maritime security and freedom of navigation, and safety of sea lanes of communication for unfettered movement of trade in accordance with international law.” New Delhi has been reiterating its commitment to not only supporting freedom of navigation and right of passage but also access to resources in accordance with accepted principles of international law and practice.
Delhi needs to assure the regional states of its reliability not only as an economic and political partner but also as a security provider. As the balance of power in Asia changes and as the very coherence of the Asean comes under question, there will be new demands on India. While the past 20 years in India-Asean ties have been productive, the next 20 years are bound to be more challenging. And India will have to think more creatively to enhance bilateral and multilateral ties in this rapidly evolving regional context.