Revisiting ASEAN-India in 2018

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The year 2017 celebrated 50 years of ASEAN’s existence and 25 years of ASEAN-India Dialogue Partnership. Trying to keep pace with India’s ‘Act East’ policy and in tandem with the immediate neighbourhood policy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government decided India’s 69th Republic day celebration on 26 January 2018 as a ripe occasion to invite the heads of state of the ten ASEAN countries as Chief Guests. India also decided to coincide this landmark visit with the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit on 24-25 January 2018 to mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations. With so many Southeast Asian leaders and dignitaries awaited and many important meetings, dialogues and agreements expected, it is bound to be one of the most highlighted, assessed and reviewed proceedings. However, it remains to be seen whether this occasion will probably go down in history as India’s stepping stone in closing the gaps to a more significant integration with the Southeast Asian region or if it will be just another flash in the pan.

This landmark event of inviting heads of state from the ten Southeast Asian countries would be cautioned by some as a reactionary approach fuelled by China pursuing its global ambition and changing the status quo from the South China Sea to the Eastern coast of Africa and beyond. These perspectives are not far off when the fact is China now has a deep influx in the close neighbourhood of India. It is slowly chipping away India’s influence in Sri Lanka and Maldives, the two countries blinded by soft loans and investments from Beijing. The recent developments in the two island countries have put India’s security and foreign policy establishment into a quagmire. The idea of other smaller countries such as Nepal and probably even Bhutan slowly swaying to the idea of Pax Sinica should ring the alarm bells for India’s foreign policymakers for India to live up to the expectations of a “leading global power” or even an influential player in its region alone. Much was expected of India since its ‘Look East’ policy was initiated in 1991 along with the opening up of its economy. It was supposed to be an automated path where India and ASEAN countries 25 years down the line are deeply entrenched and integrated through economic, social, cultural and political associations. The reality check today reveals that India is not even close to the trade figures that China has with ASEAN countries. India’s latest trade figures amount to near $ 80 billion with ASEAN states, whereas China’s trading figures with ASEAN countries has crossed $ 450 billion and expected to touch $ 1 trillion by 2020. (http://www.asiaone.com/business/china-asean-trade-hit-us1-trillion-2020) China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) is expected to boost the flow of trade between China and ASEAN’s six most prominent economies – Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam to an investment amount of about US$2.1 trillion by 2030, revealed an analysis by HSBC. (https://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2017/05/20/chinas-bri-seen-boosting-trade-with-asean-to-us21-trillion/) The huge gap in trade alone is a dampener for India’s future with ASEAN.

The terminology was changed from ‘Look’ to ‘Act East’ in 2014, but the approach has been treading the old principles of shared values, a common destiny, shared prosperity, culture and dwelling on technical jargon of relations becoming ‘strategic’ in nature. While celebrating the 25 years of relations, it is this nature of ‘strategic partnership’ that needs to be given more impetus in ASEAN-India relations for the next 25 years to come. India needs to effectively engage the Southeast Asian countries to keep the sea lanes of communications open in the South China Sea region amidst overlapping territorial claims with China. In fact, some of the ASEAN countries, keeping aside Cambodia and Lao PDR, that are searching for a balancing power to China in the region would be keenly observing how India tackles the overlapping conflicts. If the proceedings of the recently held CSCAP (Council for Security Cooperation in Asia-Pacific) meeting in December 2017 are to be weighed-in, then the prevailing sense amongst the ASEAN delegates has been of apprehension towards China’s intimidating economic tactics. (http://www.ibtimes.sg/india-needs-harmonise-ties-global-power-centres-22907) Meanwhile, certain foreign policy experts from the Southeast Asian region had also questioned the lack of performance by India, even hinting at a subtle resistance to the concept of “Indo-Pacific” as a replacement to the old “Asia-Pacific”. India was also called out on its ‘Act East’ policy looking more like ‘At Ease’ policy. (http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/asean-cscap-security-look-east-indian-navy-a-strategy-for-the-sea-5013281/) Such sluggish perspectives, even if a handful, only serves detrimental to India’s foreign policy approach in defining India-ASEAN relationship.

It has been widely reported that counter-terrorism, security and trade would be the top agenda during the India-ASEAN summit. The overall concern has always been what India brings to the table for ASEAN countries. In matters of security purpose, ASEAN had always followed the policy of centrality or neutrality and mostly refrained from taking any military action in the past. The ASEAN countries always had good relations with China till they stirred the South China Sea controversy. As the current state of affairs unfolds with challenges to the global order stemming from a much assertive and coercive China doling out soft loans and investments, it has become imperative to address matters of regional security in the context of overlapping territorial conflicts. There is now an emerging new aspect to territorial sovereignty issues as China wielding its financial clout in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, indicate a predatory approach of debt-trap diplomacy. All over the world from South America, Africa and South-Southeast Asia, China has ensnared ‘n’ number of countries in its debt and taken over the ports, bases at strategic locations to increase its global presence. (https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/china-sri-lanka-hambantota-port-debt-by-brahma-chellaney-2017-12) It is in these matters that India needs to engage the ASEAN countries and provide an alternative to China’s rise and tackle the hard security issues. Under India and Japan’s “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC)”, the possibility of an alternative to the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) is potentially viable. However, Japanese governments’ reported plans to cooperate with China on its Belt and Road initiative needs to be immediately addressed, whether the Japanese assistance to BRI would be as part of the AAGC or independent of it. Doubts have been raised on Japan’s motive regarding their latest move on BRI. There have been far too many pending initiatives from India when it comes to ASEAN countries. A $ 1 billion Line of credit for physical connectivity with ASEAN was proposed since 2015 and was recently promised again in December 2017. In 2015, the government of India was also targeting to explore investment opportunities in the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam) countries through a project development fund of Rs 500 crores. The outcome of these proposed initiatives has been unconvincing with several pending projects in the pipeline. The ASEAN trilateral highway, the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport projects are still at different stages of development and implementation. Meanwhile, China has already caught India and other powers off-guard deploying its massively ambitious program of infrastructure building to connect China’s less developed border regions and neighbouring countries by constructing trans-national rail/road projects and seaports along the East/South China Sea expanding to the Indian Ocean till the East-African coast. India needs to shed its cautious approach and execute its proposed plans immediately if it still considers becoming a regional power.

India has always been proud of its democratic founding and thus has always been propelled as the largest democracy in the world that can guide and assist the rest of the ASEAN countries, especially the ones that took the path of democratic reforms after the end of the Cold War. This expected bonhomie of shared prosperity through universal democratic principles and belief can be stated to have failed to keep pace recently with the years 2016 and 2017 witnessing political turmoil due to rise in nationalistic fervour amongst the various Southeast Asian countries. Even in India where the election of a BJP majority government has been touted as leading to an increased suppression and atrocities faced by minorities such as the Muslims and Dalits. Rise of authoritarianism has been accounted globally and Southeast Asia was no stranger to this phenomenon. The Philippines elected Rodrigo Duterte who had openly preached the path of violence during his election campaigning to clean the streets of Manila once he became the President. Afterwards, the Philippines witnessed a violent crackdown on the country’s drug dealers in the name of war against drugs, executing more than 7000 suspected criminals. Myanmar recently witnessed deliberately targeted operations against the Rohingya Muslim population in the Rakhine state. More than half of the population were driven out into neighbouring Bangladesh and hundreds of their villages destroyed, there were reports of crime against humanity and ethnic cleansing by Myanmar’s security forces. In the midst of this calamity, the once celebrated beacon of democracy Daw Aung San Suu Kyi remained silent on the crisis and even refused to accept the persecution of the Rohingya population. This crisis signalled how much the far-fetched dream of democracy was either at a nascent stage in Myanmar or just a smoke-screen with the supposed leader of masses tilting towards an authoritarian ideology herself. Indonesia has been one of the most proclaimed examples of democracy thriving in any Muslim-majority country. The year 2017 witnessed an unexpected turn of events in this moderate Islam country as the Blasphemy Law was enacted to persecute and jail Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as Ahok, once a highly adored ethnic-Chinese Christian governor of Jakarta. The guilty verdict was considered a harsher than expected ruling. The mass rallies organised by the hardline Islamist groups, known as the Islamic Defenders Front, to protest against the governor showed the growing influence of these groups in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation and how it could embolden the challenge to secularism in the country. For integration with ASEAN not just in commercial terms but even in establishing a viable civil-society, the Southeast Asian countries along with India need to introspect on their path to be wholly secular. Local governments need to be made responsible for advocating a culture of tolerance concerning religion, ethnic or even political differences and protect the dignity, equality of all groups. To savour the economic dividends of strong foreign political and economic relations there needs to be a conducive atmosphere in the society amongst the citizens as well.

India needs to provide a balance to China and not disappoint ASEAN again, as this may be the last opportunity before the growing internal feud on China’s actions takes over ASEAN’s functioning and severely dent India’s chances. India needs to put forth its best efforts to engage ASEAN in all spheres possible.


Also published on Medium.