Dec 24, 2012

Thailand - Asean woos India during uncertain times

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Growing ties with Delhi stem from concerns about China

It took two decades for the leaders of Asean and India to have the courage to say that they are strategic partners in the truest sense of the world. They have been reluctant to say this all along, as they don't want to give the wrong impression that they are ganging up against common adversaries. But the rapidly changing regional environment and global uncertainties have made Asean and India to realise that they have to forge a closer relations beyond the economic and trade tracks. For years, they have negotiated a free-trade agreement to promote trade and investment, which by all records dealings were still small. At the summit meeting last week in New Delhi, the leaders of Asean and India exhibited the same wavelength - that comprehensive relations are important to peace and stability in the region.

Of course, the summit successfully concluded without mentioning the rise of China and perceived threats that come with it. Everybody knows the reason why the two sides got together and upgraded their relations beyond the 20th anniversary - to essentially balance the growing influence of China. Asean and India were very clear not to say the obvious. In the past, Asean has treated India as a middle-ranked power with an inward looking attitude, focusing on its own region. However, over recent decades, with growing trade and investment and other links with Asean, India has become an important partner to promote economic progress in Southeast Asia. Asean-India ties are now much more strategic than before.

Asean feels comfortable with India, as a rising power. New Delhi has never been perceived as a security threat in the region. Its benign foreign policy and humility has encouraged Asean to woo India to increase security cooperation, especially maritime security. This will be a new area of security cooperation between Asean and India. Deep down, Asean is looking to India, the world's largest democracy, as another security guarantor. Of course, the US is the main superpower, which provides to an overarching security shield for the region. But Asean is keen for an additional strategic partner that has proximity. Although Australia is close to Southeast Asia, it is considered a Western power with a focus mainly on protecting its and US interests in the region.

From now on, India should do more to maintain the confidence of Asean and demonstrate its commitment to make tangible progress on their bilateral ties. In the past, Asean also wooed China, thinking that it would help to strengthen the regional security. However, the rising tension in the South China Sea accompanied by Beijing's tough talk has recently changed the thinking within this region. Asean wants to make sure that along with US, India will walk side by side with the grouping to increase its support when it is placed on a line-up with China. In a similar vein, Asean's increased engagement with India will intensify in proportion to the degree of cooperation the region gets from Beijing on the drafting of a code of conduct for the South China Sea and other areas.

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