External Affairs

Expert Gyan: India’s Engagement With ASEAN and Asian Geopolitics

The Wire spoke to experts about India’s profile in the regional group, the future of ASEAN’s centrality, the impact of India’s economic protectionism and implications of the Indo-Pacific concept.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with leaders of ASEAN countries in Delhi. Credit: PIB

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with leaders of ASEAN countries in Delhi. Credit: PIB

For two days, India’s capital is playing host to leaders of the ten member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. While the plenary meeting of the commemorative summit is on January 25 evening, the highlight will be the presence of the ten leaders at the VVIP saluting podium to watch the annual Republic Day parade on Rajpath.

The Wire spoke to experts about India’s profile in the regional group, the future of ASEAN centrality, the impact of India’s economic protectionism and implications of the Indo-Pacific concept. Edited excerpts of the conversations follow.

§

Frederic Grare. Credit: Carnegie Endowment website

Frederic Grare. Credit: Carnegie Endowment website

Frederic Grare, non-resident senior fellow, South Asia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of India Turns East: International Engagement and U.S.-China Rivalry

Has there been greater strategic convergence between ASEAN and India over the years?

India’s initial interest in ASEAN was the development of its foreign trade and the attraction of foreign direct investment. Being gradually associated to ASEAN institutions later brought some political dividends, but these were a consequence of the development of India’s economic relations with ASEAN, not its cause, even though India wanted to institutionalise these relationships very early on. Greater strategic convergence has since characterised the relationship in the following years, largely due to the Chinese factor.

Some ASEAN countries had expected India to give a similar role to other dialogue partners like the US, Japan, Australia and China – but India’s role in ASEAN is still limited, both by its strategic interest and delivery capacity. Do you feel that there has been a misalignment between expectations over the years between India and ASEAN?

Not really. There has been occasional frustration and ASEAN members, at least the most important of them, seem to believe that India constantly plays below its weight category and so they often complain about India’s insufficient assertiveness in ASEAN’s activities.

In this context, I read this line in your book – “India became a partner by default, whose potential and importance were obvious to all but whose usefulness was occasionally doubted”. Can you explain this a bit, especially the doubts about India’s role?

The doubts were about India’s capacity to transform its potential into actual capacity. India was a big country which could become a regional giant – and incidentally a balancer to China – if it was able to mobilise its own resources, but this India’s partners doubted. As there was no big regional power available, India became the partner by default.

With ASEAN’s centrality – a pillar of India’s Look East policy – coming under stress, how would you advise India to hedge its bets in a Sino-centric Asia and a divided ASEAN? With reference  to what you wrote about India needing to play a more proactive role in building a regional security architecture to mitigate the impact of the China-US rivalry, what are the options for India?

The problem is not only that ASEAN centrality is under stress due to a growing US-China rivalry. It is also that there is a growing uncertainty regarding US commitment to regional security. I insist on the term uncertainty because the actual policy has changed very little and certainly much less than the perception. This complicates the calculation of Indian decision makers because a closer relationship with the United States and the capacity to play on this greater proximity has always been part of the option.

Given this situation, the choices made by the Indian leadership – and one can only observe the remarkable continuity between the foreign policies of the Manmohan Singh and Modi government, even if they vary in their respective styles and apparent determination, are perfectly rational.

They are systematically building strategic relationships with countries on China’s periphery, Japan being the most obvious example, while trying to deepen the relationship with the US, but maintaining a constant dialogue with Beijing to manage occasional crises. One cannot know how long this will be sufficient, but given the circumstances, this is probably a reasonable policy.

While it is a member, India has largely remained a passive participant in the Asian security institutions. Would you agree with this observation?

I can’t really answer this question. This is a criticism which is often – very often – formulated by ASEAN members vis-à-vis India, more as frustration than anything else. But one has to be part of the meeting to assess the accuracy of the judgment, and I never was.


Also read: Twenty-Five Years On, India, ASEAN Want to Be in Sync, but Keep Missing Cues


India has become increasingly defensive in its multilateral economic relations with ASEAN, as seen by its position during Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations. How will this increasingly protectionist position be seen in Southeast Asia and impact perceptions on India’s role in the regional architecture?

It is certainly seen as a sign of weakness, as a source of frustration because it does slow down or impede the negotiations and certainly does not impact positively on India’s regional status, therefore diminishing its role in the security architecture. Yet, India remains the only very large economy in the region, even if a distant second vis-à-vis China, and cannot be ignored or left aside.

How critical is it for India to join the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and will it find more supporters for its application if it takes a defensive economic position and does not open up market access to Southeast Asian nations?

You actually give the answer in the question. Joining APEC is part of India’s bid to become a player at the high table, although APEC has certainly lost part of its importance. But India has indeed a very defensive economic position – sometimes for very understandable reasons such as the necessity to create safety nets for its most vulnerable citizens – and is not open enough, not just to Southeast Asian nations, but to everybody, lessening its chances to join an organisation with free trade as a core value.

Does ASEAN accept the concept of the larger Indo-Pacific – or is there a perception that it could dilute the focus of major powers in Southeast Asia?

The concept of Indo-Pacific is now obvious to all. Whatever happens in the West Pacific (South China Sea) inevitably affects the Indian Ocean and vice-versa. I don’t think it could dilute the focus of major powers in Southeast Asia. On the contrary, it does increase it because of the connectivity between the Pacific and the Indian Oceans.

§

Suthiphand Chirathivat, executive director, ASEAN Studies Centre, Chulalongkorn University and Anupama Devendrakumar, PhD researcher, ASEAN Studies Center, Chulalongkorn University

Anupama Devendrakumar. Credit: LinkedIn

Anupama Devendrakumar. Credit: LinkedIn

Has there been greater strategic convergence between ASEAN and India over the years?

Of course, India’s interests in ASEAN have widened. Strategic convergence is too broad a term in an absolute sense. India’s interests and efforts to connect and engage with ASEAN have grown considerably, however at a slower pace. Relatively speaking, in comparison to other external members of ASEAN such as China, Japan, South Korea, India and ASEAN’s partnership is not deep enough.

Some ASEAN countries had expected India to give similar role to other dialogue partners like US, Japan, Australia and China – but India’s role in ASEAN is still limited, both by its strategic interest and delivery capacity. Do you feel that there has been a misalignment between expectations between India and ASEAN?

Your question is unclear. If we understood correctly you are asking if India responded to ASEAN member countries’ expectation of India giving them as much importance as it does to other major powers. Yes, India’s engagement with ASEAN is limited. “Misalignment” may not be the right word because India and ASEAN are not clear on their mutual expectations and, therefore, in the absence of such clarity, ways and means of mutual engagement are inadequate.

With ASEAN centrality – a pillar of India’s Look East policy – coming under stress, how would you advice India to hedge its bet in a Sino-centric Asia and a divided ASEAN? What are the options for India in this evolving situation?

Speaking about India’s role in ASEAN from an economics perspective, it is not anymore about India playing a balancing act. China has come to ASEAN and is influencing ASEAN, particularly mainland ASEAN (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam), in a big way. Containing China is a challenging task. ASEAN has to constantly come up with strategies to engage with China to safeguard ASEAN’s core interests. India can engage in two ways: first, deepen the regional economic integration; second, build a combined counterforce by joining countries like Japan.


Also read: India Would Do Well to Remember That the Road to Global Leadership Is Not Bilateral


While it is a member, India has largely remained a passive participant in the Asian security institutions. Would you agree with this observation?

To a certain extent, when compared to other major players. But the future looks likely to change as both would demand more from each other. In particular, ASEAN would need India to do more and to play an increasing role in face of the uncertain US role in the region.

Suthiphand Chirathivat. Credit: LinkedIn

Suthiphand Chirathivat. Credit: LinkedIn

India has become increasingly defensive in its multilateral economic relations with ASEAN, as seen by its position during RCEP negotiations. How will this position be seen in Southeast Asia and impact perceptions on India’s role in the regional architecture?

As you stated, the perception of India being protectionist continues among ASEAN members and restricts possibilities of India’s role in the region.

On connectivity, India has some projects like the trilateral highway, but has not been able to complete them on schedule. In contrast, China is going full steam ahead with OBOR. Even Japan has several projects going on. Do you have concern about India lagging behind in the connectivity race in Southeast Asia? 

Yes, India is lagging behind. Being part of/strengthening physical connectivity is important because these projects open up channels to reinvigorate historical connections and further socio-cultural engagements and build trust. From an economic perspective, connectivity reduces trade costs. Mere tariff reduction through free trade agreements is not enough for trade to grow. FTAs are to be combined with other elements such as reducing transport costs, facilitating trade and measures to deal with non-tariff measures. India needs to play a much more proactive role in this regard.

How critical is it for India to join APEC and will it find more supporters for its application, if it continues to have a defensive economic position and not open up market access to Southeast Asian nations?

India needs to do a lot of homework before joining the APEC. For sure, other APEC members will request India to offer a much more open and liberalised economy as a member of the club.

Does ASEAN accept the concept of the larger Indo-Pacific – or is there a perception that it could dilute the focus of major powers in Southeast Asia?

While the concept of Indo-Pacific was advanced by the US at the latest APEC Summit in Vietnam, ASEAN member countries recognised this shift of strategic interests and would like to understand more and see how the concept will develop and interface with the existing regional security institutions such as ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit.

§

Termsak Chalermpalanupap. Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute website

Termsak Chalermpalanupap. Credit: ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute website

Termsak Chalermpalanupap, lead researcher, ASEAN political and security affairs, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute

Has India’s interest in ASEAN gone beyond its initial aim to be part of the regional game with the big boys? In other words, has there been greater strategic convergence between ASEAN and India over the years?

ASEAN and India share a similar interest in maintaining regional peace, stability and prosperity in Southeast Asia, and at the same time trying to benefit from China’s rise.

Some ASEAN countries had expected India to give it a similar role to other dialogue partners like the US, Japan, Australia and China – but India’s role in ASEAN is still limited. Do you feel that there has been a misalignment of expectations between India and ASEAN?

India still has a great deal of potential in political and security affairs to serve as a counter-weight to China for ASEAN and its members to rely on. So far, I believe, ASEAN and its members have been fairly satisfied with the growing Indian interest in engagement with ASEAN. India started from a very disadvantaged position after the lost decade of the 1980s when India sided with the Soviet Union in trying to shore up the Heng Samrin regime in Phnom Penh.

Now India has quite a few achievements to be proud of: becoming a Dialogue Partner in December 1995 [whereas Pakistan remains a Sectoral Dialogue Partner]; acceding to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in October 2003; starting FTA negotiations with ASEAN in 2003 and the FTA entered into force in 2010; joining the ASEAN-led RCEP negotiations; and now the second ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit in New Delhi, etc.

Several ASEAN diplomats that I have spoken to say that India has still not understood how the ASEAN process works. Their main gripe is that India often bypasses the secretariat and prefers to deal with countries bilaterally. Indian diplomats claim that the secretariat is rather slow. From your personal experience, how was India’s understanding of the function of the secretariat?

I don’t recall having any difficulty dealing with the Indian embassy in Jakarta, especially during the 1990s when I handled the coordination of ASEAN-India relations (as well as ASEAN-Pakistan relations). My recollection is that the Indian government would always work hard in trying to deliver whatever it has committed to do for ASEAN. But sometimes, delivery is delayed by slow-moving Indian bureaucrats in New Delhi.


Also read: As China Expands Its Footprint, India Could Look at ‘Congagement’


With ASEAN centrality – a pillar of India’s Look East policy – coming under stress, how would you advise India to hedge its bets in a Sino-centric Asia and a divided ASEAN? What are the options for India in this evolving situation?

One clear option is to continue to support a united and successful ASEAN community. And let everyone else know the Indian government’s position on this.

A successful ASEAN community will guarantee peace, stability and prosperity in Southeast Asia – and this will benefit India as well as China and every other major power with a strategic stake in Southeast Asia.

While it is a member, India has largely remained a passive participant in the Asian security institutions. Would you agree with this observation?

In the past, India’s preoccupation was always with Pakistan plus China. But Indian security interest may be changing, as can be seen from the evolution of India’s Look East policy to Act East policy. India now has equally important security interests in Southeast Asia and East Asia. Hence it is prudent for India to be active in Asian security arrangements, especially in those initiated by ASEAN, where Indian active participation is always welcome.

India has become increasingly defensive in its multilateral economic relations with ASEAN, as seen by its position during RCEP negotiations. How will this increasingly protectionist position be seen in Southeast Asia and impact perceptions on India’s role in the regional architecture?

India is gradually opening up its market, just like China did during the 1980s and 1990s. Eventually India will see the greater benefits of open and free market competition, especially now that Japan and the US are keen to support economic development and investment more in India.

The existing perception is that Indian politicians tend to have more forward-looking visions than Indian bureaucrats. That is why it is necessary to have a strong and influential prime minister, like Mr Modi.

On connectivity, India has some projects like the trilateral highway, but has not been able to complete them on schedule. In contrast, China is going full steam ahead with OBOR. Even Japan has several projects going. Do you have concern about India lagging behind in the connectivity race in Southeast Asia? Why is it important for India to be part of this aspect?

Indeed, the trilateral highway has suffered some setbacks and delays. This is an important connectivity project that should be completed as soon as possible. It can help show the rest of the world that India is committed to working with ASEAN in a concrete way, not just in rhetoric. ASEAN-India connectivity will show everyone else that Southeast Asia is connected not only to China up north, but is also closely linked with India to the west.

How critical is it for India to join APEC and will it find more supporters for its application, if it continues to have a defensive economic position and not open up market access to south east Asian nations?

Personally, I believe APEC is now not so exciting any more, especially with President Trump’s America First priority. Instead of APEC, India had better put more energy and effort in engaging ASEAN and in negotiating RCEP.

Does ASEAN accept the concept of the larger Indo-Pacific – or is there a perception that it could dilute the focus of major powers in Southeast Asia?

I think ASEAN would not want to have any part in the Indo-Pacific strategy, which is seen in Beijing as another Japanese attempt in instigating a new anti-China containment.

ASEAN has long dismissed ideology as a factor in modern-day international relations; whereas Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying to prove the superiority of Western liberal democracy in his revival of the Indo-Pacific idea.

However, ASEAN and its members would certainly welcome the offer of alternative financing for high quality infrastructure investments under the Indo-Pacific framework. It is good to have more funding choices, so that ASEAN members need not depend entirely on China and the Chinese BRI projects.

Liked the story? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.