Strengthening Asean-India Ties: The Delhi Summit’s Takeaways
The recently held Asean-India Commemorative Summit in the Indian capital city of New Delhi last week has served to strengthen the existing bonds between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This year marks the 20th anniversary of India becoming a sectoral dialogue partner of Asean and the 10th anniversary of the Asean-India Summits. One of the highlights of this summit was the elevation of Asean-India relations to the level of a strategic partnership. It also saw the successful winding up of negotiations on the Asean-India FTA in Services and Investments.
Indeed, ever since 1992 (when India became a sectoral dialogue partner of Asean), India-Asean relations on both the political and economic fronts have seen tremendous growth.
One of the important reasons why Asean nations are looking toward India is that some of them are clearly anxious about China’s growing aggressiveness in the region and would like to see India play some sort of a balancer role in this region. In the past, although the United States has announced a “pivot” toward Asia, the Asean member countries would also like India to play a more active role in the region, given its increasing political and economic weight and the fact that it is situated in the region and has extensive historical and civilizational ties with it, unlike the US. In many of these countries, China has huge economic investments and there is an economic over-dependence on China, which many of these countries and their citizens resent, as in the case of Myanmar.
Since some of the Asean countries are locked in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea region, it is important to take note that the vision statement released at the end of this meeting clearly mentions that India and the Asean “are committed to 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, including [the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea].”
Although India is not directly involved in the South China Sea region, it has investments in oil-fields off the coast of Vietnam and has been asked by China to stay away from what it calls are its “territorial waters.” Hence this statement will send a message to China that India will not compromise on its national interests. Although India’s maritime profile is also growing, the important difference vis-a-vis China is that no Asean country sees India as a threat.
The vision statement also noted that India and Asean are committed to launching the Asean-India Free Trade Area, which will create a market of around 1.8 billion people with a “combined GDP of $3.8 trillion.”
Asean and India have also set a new target of $100 billion for their total trade by 2015, having already surpassed the target of $70 billion set for this year.
Some major infrastructural projects are also in the offing. Both India and the Asean nations laid stress on completion of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and its subsequent extension to Laos and Cambodia. Besides, a new highway project that will connect India, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia is in the offing as well as a Mekong-India Economic Corridor, which will join with India’s economically backward northeastern part.
All this is in step with India’s “Look-East Policy,” which was launched in the early 1990s, in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. Since then, India has aggressively courted the region. Interestingly, the then-finance minister, Manmohan Singh, is India’s present prime minister. However, there are quite a few challenges that remain in this respect.
As compared with China, Indian public sector companies have been slow in executing projects in the Asean region and the Indian private sector companies have shown a reticence to move into this region. In addition, there are very few academics, diplomats and policy-makers in India who read and write the languages of the countries of this region. The people-to-people ties are still underdeveloped and India should be able to draw in more tourists from the Asean member countries, being the birthplace of Buddhism.
India till now has been careful not to annoy China, when it comes to disputes in the South China Sea region. However, at some stage in the near future, India would have to stand up on behalf of some of the Asean countries like Vietnam or Philippines in their disputes with China.
This does not mean that India has to get involved in a military conflict with China, but it should be able to send a tougher message to China, with which India itself also has a disputed border. It is worth mentioning here that China has consistently refused to settle this border row with India and has kept using delaying tactics.
On the positive side, Myanmar’s about-face toward democracy has come as manna from heaven for India, especially because Myanmar is India’s gateway to the Asean region. Backing from the Asean countries is also crucial as India aspires to be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Hence it is a given that in the light of their convergent interests, the relations between India and the Asean countries is destined to grow even closer in the years to come.
Rupakjyoti Borah is an assistant professor of international relations at the School of Liberal Studies, Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, India, and was a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Center for International Studies in 2009. The views expressed here are personal.