India’s decision to accede to the 1976 Asean Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in July 2003 was considered a major milestone in its diplomatic annals due to its swiftness and timeliness. Immediately, it upgraded India’s status as well as its role in Asean. Being the same country as China pledging to respect and sign on to the regional code of conduct helped instill the two Asian giants as the most trusted dialogue countries of Asean throughout the 2000s. However, change is in the air.
The ongoing rapture of Asean-China friendship over the South China Sea debacle has reduced the level of Asean-China mutual trust painstakingly built over the past two decades. Prior to July 2010, the Asean-China relations were excellent, so were their body languages and narratives. Gone were the days when Asean felt comfortable in consultative sessions or giving preferences to China and vice versa. Before that their cooperation in all areas went on smoothly without a hitch. None would have predicted the dire situation of their Asean-China friendship as it appears today. At this juncture, Asean has been focused on the bidding code of conduct in the disputed maritime area. Their future ties are very much hinged on this particular progress.
Against such unsettling Asean-China relations and their strategic implications, the leaders from Asean and India are scheduled to meet 20-21 December in New Delhi. On the surface, the summit commemorates the 20th anniversary of their relations with a big theme: Asean-India Partnership for Peace and Shared Prosperity. Although their bilateral ties have been progressing steady without any serious problem, they are pale by comparison to the ever expansive Asean-China ties covering more than 40 committees, small and big at all levels. The two-way trade volume between Asean and India reached US$80 billion last year, which was much smaller than the overall Asean-China trade volume which could reach US$500 billion over the three years. But the Asean-India economic potential is there as both sides are more focused now and want to take advantage of their free trade agreement concluded two years ago, which will be more comprehensive including service and investment.
Beyond the diplomatic pleasantries, both Asean and Indian leaders want to send strong signals to the world that their relations are more than skin deep and encompass more than economic, social and cultural sphere. The most important message would certainly be that their relations are getting closer and becoming more strategic. India, with its rather benign approach to the grouping, is stepping up its diplomacy to establish foothold as a power to be reckoned with in the 21st century. Although India has never explicitly offered itself as a balancing wheel vis a vis China, the Asean countries have recognized that in the long run, India would be the most crucial strategic partner of Asean in countervailing China’s growing influence in the region.
Therefore, New Delhi’s key strategic thinking from now on would essentially be assuring the Asean countries that India is a dependable and reliable strategic partner. View from this perspective, India is complimenting the US rebalancing efforts towards the region while Japan and South Korea and the rest of key US allies, are more focus on the security in Northeast Asia and South China Sea. In 2005, Singapore’s former prime minister Goh Chok Tong famously used the airplane metaphor comparing India and China as the two wings lifting the Asean fuselage. Now Asean has to fly higher as the major powers are competing for sphere of influence. Asean must pilote the airplane is such way that it would not lose it balance and divert from its established strategic interests.
In the past four decades, Japan used to be the main security collaborators of US regional security. Japan has been the principle country to provide financial aid to Asean and former Indochinese countries that allow them to attain development and economic progress. Given the ongoing unsettling domestic politics and economic slowdowns, Japan’s role remains important but it is no longer occupied the supremacy as before. In addition, the new US Asian policy under the first Obama administration has given Australia and the whole alliance system a big push. The stationing of 2,500 American marines in Darwin was a sign that the US is committed to the security in the region. But the whole blueprint is the American design.
But for the interest of Asean, India is the obvious choice because its proximity to Southeast East Asia and its blue-navy capacities. It is not surprising that the Asean leaders are enthusiatic to attend this week summit in New Delhi. After all, Asean considers India its pivot in overall scheme of things in Asia.
This week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh would become the first Indian leader to meet all Asean leaders more times than all other predecessors. The 10th Asean-India Summit marks a remarkable turnaround for their relations which began in 1992, when it was admitted as a sectoral dialogue partner along with Pakistan. India became the full dialogue partner in 1996. It took pains for Asean and India to overcome their past bad experience and policies when India recognized the Heng Samrin regime in 1980 which literally froze Asean-India relations for over a decade. It took the bold initiative of former prime minister Narasimha Raos in 1991 to break the impasse and install some prominence to India’s diplomacy in Southeast Asia with its Look East Policy.
With the more dynamic strategic landscape in the region, India cannot remain passive. The Asean leaders, as a whole, do not feel threaten by the rise of India. They welcome it and want to see India become more active in engaging them.
This article first appeared in the Bangkok-based The Nation newspaper. Kavi Chongkittavorn is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group and his views do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy.