The recent India-Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in New Delhi appeared on the geopolitical scene almost against the trend of events, with the high-profile focus on Europe at one end and on the Quad at the other. Yet, it was one of the most welcome events. Travelling the Asean beat, one realises the immense progress and dynamism in the region and the desire to cooperate for a brighter future.
One recalls the visit of the 10 heads of Government of Asean countries as the guests of honour at India’s Republic Day celebrations in January 2018. That was to be the alpha moment in the yet-unrealised India-Asean relationship, to take it to its true potential; a relationship between 1.3 billion Indian people and 600 million from the 10 Asean nations. However, the promise faded in the face of many other events that dominated the geopolitical dynamics of the Indo-Pacific.
The first of the events that should have actually brought more focus on the India-Asean relationship was the renaming of Asia-Pacific as the Indo-Pacific with a security reorientation. The north-south alignment that existed for the Asia-Pacific dispensation was given an east-west one to bring India into the fold by drawing it out from what was perceived as a Cold War hangover. The geo-political spread also cut across the swathe covering Asean. The US intent of bringing India into the drive towards containment of China should probably have involved a more robust attempt to engage with Asean in an Indo-US mode. Perhaps this would have commenced had the pandemic not struck. Asean nations have close links with China and it is not an either/or situation of choosing between the two Asian giants. However, the liberal democratic values of India are in common with many of these nations and the US would definitely wish to expand on that. It is not in a tearing hurry to upset the fragile balance as is evident with the Quad’s very limited securitised orientation. Yet the US would definitely visualise more benefits from an expanded and productive Indo-Asean engagement.
It is not as if Indo-Asean cooperation has seen no headway; it is the unrealised potential that one is looking at. There are strategic partnerships galore but the kind of transformational relationships that India has succeeded in establishing in the Gulf region is not replicated here purely because the diaspora is limited. As there are commonalities of interests, so are there some differences of perception. Asean is not apparently convinced by India’s exit from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) after eight long years of negotiation. India was always convinced that its interests were not served because it would get swamped by Chinese exports and upset the already tenuous trade deficit. Many Asean countries feel that the issue has not yet been closed but the current run of Sino-Indian relations does not indicate the possibility of adjustment and compromise.
Sino-Indian relations remain a bugbear for Asean. Except for the Singapore think tanks which find a fair presence of Indian intelligentsia, the other Asean nations do not have the benefit of listening to and constantly appreciating the Indian standpoint on the relationship between India and China.
The Sino-Indian border is a far-off entity but it is not just the border that is important, it is the larger issue of China accepting India on the high table without feeling aggrieved that the next step would be an Indian attempt to unseat China and usurp its power. Asean is unable to understand the nature of the relationship between India and China which brings close economic cooperation between the two giants and yet a massive trust deficit. The developments in Ladakh in the high Himalayas in the last two years would further confound Asean nations. It leads to a division of opinion within the grouping on how to respond. That also puts a hold on the natural progressive development of the relationship with India.
Asean nations are also wary of the Indo-Pacific orientation of the US geopolitical outlook. While they remain wary of China’s intent and strategy in the South China Sea and in the overall domain of following a rules-based order and freedom of navigation, they do not want to irk it either without full confidence of the degree to which the US will go in pushing their common interests in the region. The Quad does not inspire confidence because of its long history of differences and the slow development of its security orientation. Perhaps that was also one of the reasons for the creation of AUKUS, a kind of supplementary arrangement to inspire more confidence and message the US intent of relying on a plethora of relationships that it enjoys. Either way, Asean’s perception is reasonably clear—it does not want an expansion of big power rivalry in its region. While it retains its interests, many of its nations are aggressive in the communication of their will and refuse to be bullied.
The irony is that all this power-play disallows the clear intent of Asean developing relations with India, something which could be perceived as being against Chinese interests. President Joe Biden’s efforts to pull away from the Euro theatre and refocus on the Indo-Pacific commenced with the convening of Indo-Pacific Economic Grouping, conveying that continued economic cooperation with the Asean countries remained the vehicle for preventing a stronger China-focused orientation by Asean.
The joint size of the India and Asean economies today is $6 trillion, which can quadruple in the next 20 years. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan identified three key factors necessary to realise this goal: a rules-based international order that takes into account Asia’s aspirations; fulfilment of trade and investment potential; and the effective leveraging of digital technologies. India is well up on the latter and can actually be a model for some others.
However, much would depend on India’s progressive involvement with the security structure of the Indo-Pacific. Unfortunately, the war in Ukraine has an impact on this front with India’s position of neutrality only grudgingly accepted by the US and NATO. During the recent Quad summit, India continued playing its role in the Indo-Pacific quite distinctive from its leanings in the war in Europe. The Indo-Pacific is, however, getting increasingly complicated with Asean unclear on the way forward; confrontational or cooperative; welcoming India or shunning it for the fear of China. There is enough scope for the Indo-Asean relationship to grow exponentially but it is perceptions and suspicions that will continuously make this more and more challenging.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir