The proximity between India and ASEAN has come to the fore at a critical time in Asian history. The continent is on the verge of momentous change which is currently not only about economic development, as was the post-colonial and post-World War II belief, but also about the uneasiness which the ASEAN nations have been experiencing about the rise of militarism in the region because of China’s belligerence.
It is not only goodwill for Narendra Modi, therefore, which has made the 10 leaders from South-East Asia come to New Delhi for India’s 69th Republic Day celebrations to constitute a gathering which is quite unprecedented in Asia or elsewhere in the world. They have reasons other than assembling for a weekend jamboree.
Although China has downplayed the significance of the spectacular get-together by welcoming the development of “normal and friendly” ties between India and the South-East Asian countries, Beijing cannot be unaware that China will be the dragon in the room during the two-day India-ASEAN summit.
So far as India is concerned, the conclave can be said to be in line with the attempts New Delhi has been making to bolster its position in the continent with the help of not only Japan and Vietnam, the two countries which have tense relations with China because of conflicting maritime and territorial claims, but also with the US and Australia.
As is known, the four – India, Japan, Australia and the US – make up what has come to be known as the Quad, which is some kind of an informal defence arrangement to guard against China’s aggrandizing tendencies not only in South China Sea, which China seems to regard as a domestic lake, but also in the Indian Ocean.
Apart from the emphasis on connectivity via air, sea and digital networks, and on counter-terrorism – which is India’s special preoccupation because of the harbouring of Islamic terrorists in next door Pakistan – the summit is also expected to focus on what has been called security. In addition to the modern-day requirement of cyber security along with closer cooperation in science and technology, the need for security among the ASEAN countries may have increased because of the fear of China.
These apprehensions, of course, are a recent development because, historically, the ties between China and ASEAN have been of a much longer duration than between India and ASEAN and were largely tension free. It was only two decades ago that India’s postion was upgraded to that of a full dialogue partner from that of a sectoral dialogue partner and then to a summit partnership in 2002 and strategic partnership in 2012.
One reason for this jerky progress was that, first, India tended to see ASEAN, which was set up in 1967, through its non-aligned, cold war lens since its members like Indonesia and the Philippines were perceived as being in the American sphere of influence, and, secondly, because India itself was far from being a major regional power in the 1970s and ‘80s as it is now and, therefore, did not matter much to ASEAN.
In addition, the South-East Asian countries had reservations about India’s pronounced pro-Soviet outlook, exemplified by the signing of the Indo-Soviet treaty of peace and friendship in 1971 during the Bangladesh war and India’s silence on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980.
Another reason why India’s distance from ASEAN continued till the early 21st century was because New Delhi was more interested in its relations with the West than with South-East Asia despite India’s ancient cultural links with Indonesia as could be seen by the description of Bali as the “morning” of the Hindu world by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and with Cambodia with its famed Angkor Vat temples of the 12th century dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu.
India’s long absence in ASEAN facilitated China’s presence. It is still a formidable factor considering that China’s trade with ASEAN is a whopping $ 450 billion where India’s is a mere $ 71 billion and declining since it was $ 80 billion in 2011-12. Even if India raises its trade with ASEAN to $ 200 billion by 2022, as it has pledged, it will still be way behind China’s.
At the same time, it is also true that India has succeeded in making its presence felt in the region through its soft power, viz. Bollywood films, and its reputation as a multicultural democracy which stands in sharp contrast to China’s one-party dictatorship.
And, now, with the Modi government’s avowed intension to follow a proactive “Look East” policy which really began in 1994 with then prime minister Narasimha Rao’s visits to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, India-ASEAN relations are bound to improve in leaps and bounds.
The possibility is all the greater because unlike China, India is not a threatening entity. Not only that, as China continues to flex its muscles vis-a-vis Japan and Vietnam, India is likely to be increasingly seen as a reassuring counterweight to the aspiring Middle Kingdom, not least because India itself is facing China’s creeping aggression in the north-east and its provocative alliance with Pakistan with its nuclear angle. The balance, therefore, can be said to be tilting towards India from ASEAN’s earlier standoffish position to the present camaraderie.