India hosted 10 leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) for its Republic Day. This is in celebration of 25 years of India’s dialogue status with the group and comes just days after Delhi organised its Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas celebrations with some fanfare in Singapore. Back in August, foreign secretary S Jaishankar gave the ST Lee Distinguished Annual Lecture at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, on the theme of “India, Asean, and the changing geopolitics” as part of the 25th anniversary of the relationship. Clearly, Asean is on India’s mind.
It is easy enough to see that the vector which drives the relationship is China. Since its Look East Policy was unveiled by Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s, the desire to blunt China’s influence in the region has driven Delhi to engage a region it once disdained. In 2014, that desire caused Prime Minister Narendra Modi to not just Look but also Act East. For their part, Southeast Asians expect India to serve as a balance to China. This is true even for Cambodia and Laos who do not want to be subsumed in a Chinese sphere of influence and need leverage with Beijing.
Economics too has fuelled India’s interest in Asean. In 2016, Asean’s combined GDP at $2.4 trillion was roughly the same as India’s. It is therefore a rather juicy market. Trade between India and Asean is the same as India’s trade with China, at about $70 billion. On the other hand the deficit with Asean is only $14 billion, whereas with China it is over $50 billion. Southeast Asia is a good place to invest, with its rational governance, skilled workers and good infrastructure. The region has increasingly invested in India, despite our frailties, with Singapore leading the way.
India and Asean have a social-cultural pull to each other as well. Indians feel quite comfortable in a region that by and large lives easily with its Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim inheritance from South Asia. It is an attractive destination for Indian tourists given its historical sites and affordability. India’s tourism industry underperforms so the flow of Southeast Asians to India is modest, but it has grown as Indian facilities have improved.
Asean frequently complains that “India doesn’t do enough”. When pressed, Southeast Asians can’t quite explain what they would like Delhi to do. Certainly, they do not want outright competition between India and China. Their greatest interest is to see India rise peacefully, to remain united and stable, and to be a more open market for their goods and investments.
India for its part has quietly gone about building diplomatic and even military links with virtually every country in Asean. This latter aspect of the relationship is often downplayed or forgotten by the regional countries as also by Indian commentators. Delhi has strategic dialogues with the major states in Southeast Asia and holds military exercises. It makes port calls. It trains personnel and repairs equipment. It sells arms and provides military credits to some. It likely shares intelligence too with select partners. During the 2004 tsunami, the Indian navy sailed to the rescue, along with American, Australian and Japanese navies.
Which brings us to the resurrected “quad” of India, the US, Japan, and Australia. The quad had come into being after the tsunami but was dismantled by a nervy Australia. The future of the quad is uncertain. A Labour government in Canberra may once again buckle at the knee in front of Beijing. But Southeast Asians will mostly be hoping the coalition lasts as a reassurance against China and as a general strategic stabiliser in a region that features its own internal tensions.
India’s rise does not threaten Southeast Asia, nor does the region harm India. They can do sensible and mutually beneficial things together. Asean’s coming to Republic Day symbolizes that perfectly.
By: TNN Blog
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