To fulfil Asean’s need for a regional balancing power, India must prove itself as a credible security and economic partner
This week India and the ten-member Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) marked their 20 years of partnership with a commemorative summit in New Delhi. The significance that Asean members are increasingly according India can be gauged from the presence of the Prime Ministers of Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, the Presidents of Myanmar and Indonesia and the Vice-President of Philippines in India for the India-Asean summit. The highlight of the summit was clearly the conclusion of talks on Free Trade Agreement (FTA) 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 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh 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 last year. This trade relationship will get a 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 last year 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 South-East 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 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 recognise 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 2011 was a whopping $363 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’ toward 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 South-East Asia. It is not without significance, that the vision document released at the 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.
New 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 regional 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 twenty years in India-Asean ties have been productive, the next twenty 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.
Harsh V. Pant
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