Few diplomatic events in India in recent days have received as much international attention as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitations to the 10 ASEAN Heads of Government, as Chief Guests, during India’s Republic Day celebrations. ASEAN has shown resilience in fostering regional economic cooperation, transcending bilateral disputes and differences. The organisation is, however, now experiencing strains, arising primarily from dealing with an increasingly aggressive China.
Beijing has unilaterally imposed internationally untenable norms for use of air space across its maritime frontiers. While Vietnam and Indonesia are prepared to contest China’s claims, the Philippines has yielded to China’s power and Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia and Myanmar lack the will to challenge a militarily strong China.
The weakening of resolve in ASEAN has led to China using its economic clout and military potential, for coercing and intimidating ASEAN members to undermine Indian influence. Beijing has strengthened Pakistan, which shares its ambitions in undermining India’s role across its land and maritime borders. In China’s calculations, Pakistan has a crucial role to play. India should also recognise that China has strengthened anti-Indian elements across South Asia. This Chinese propensity will only grow, unless India partners with Japan and the US.
Without explicitly naming China, the India-ASEAN Summit did lead to agreement that countries would have to respect international norms for maintaining freedom of navigation and over-flights, and conform to universally recognised principles of International Laws. China has used force and coercion, unilaterally restricting use of airspace beyond its land borders in violation of the UN Convention.
India, on the other hand, has settled its maritime boundaries with Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, setting an example for insisting that others should follow suit. China cannot pretend to be a benign power, which respects international law.
The effort to contain a hegemonic China’s military and economic power is not going to be easy. With Donald Trump’s Administration disowning the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” for closer economic ties with many ASEAN countries, China’s influence has inevitably grown. ASEAN is now moving towards a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), along with its Dialogue Partners, including India, China, Japan and South Korea.
India cannot, quite obviously, join a Free Trade Agreement that includes China, whose trade practices are neither transparent nor equitable. We can, however, consider negotiating entry in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), especially as the Trump Administration may well renegotiate its entry into the grouping, which will then give us better access to the US and Canada.
An estimated 450 million Buddhists live in our eastern neighbourhood, of whom an estimated 250 million live in China. A pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya and other Buddhist shrines in places such as Sanchi, Nalanda, Sarnath, Sravasti, Pushpagiri, Vaishali and Udayagiri will be a memorable experience for them. It will change their outlook towards India. Sadly, devout Buddhists in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand describe our tourist facilities as “primitive”. Our relationship across our eastern neighbourhood will be transformed the day we are able to welcome millions of Buddhist pilgrims with world class tourism facilities. It is time New Delhi took the lead in making India more tourism and pilgrimage friendly, especially for our eastern neighbours.