India’s extended eastern neighbourhood

ASEAN has demonstrated that it has no psychological inhibitions to the growth of comprehensive relations with India
India’s extended eastern neighbourhood
GK Photo

A special meeting of ASEAN and Indian foreign ministers was held on June 16 at Delhi to commemorate 30 years of the establishment of the Indo-ASEAN dialogue process. ASEAN has established hierarchal mechanisms with important countries for interacting with them. In the highest bracket “Dialogue Partner” are 10 countries along with the European Union. At the second level are “Sectoral Dialogue Partner”; there are 4 countries at this level. The third level are “Development Partner” in which there are also 4 states.

India and ASEAN began as Sectoral Dialogue Partners in 1992. The Cold War had ended the previous year compelling India to recalibrate its external engagements. 1991 also witnessed the beginning of the dismantling of the socialistic and inward-looking pattern of economic development which the country had pursued since 1950s. As the state’s role in the economy declined the private sector’s importance grew, so did the significance of greater foreign trade and flows of foreign capital into India. The changed model in India also required fresh thinking on India’s foreign economic relations.

It is at this time that India seriously began to focus on its extended eastern neighbourhood. This resulted in a “Look East” policy approach and a desire for greater engagement with ASEAN which initially looked at India’s desire with some wariness. Hence, it accepted India only as a Sectoral Dialogue Partner. However, as it became clear that the Indian reform process had become irreversible ASEAN agreed to have India as a full Dialogue Partner. In 2002 India and ASEAN decided to convene annual summits, thus, further upgrading their relations. Some years later India decided to post an independent ambassador to ASEAN to be stationed in Jakarta, the seat to the organisation’s Secretariat. Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised India’s ties with ASEAN and made them a central plank of his decision to accelerate India’s interaction in what is now referred to as the Indo-Pacific region. He called this re-energised approach “Act East”.

Now, the Co-Chairs statement issued at the conclusion of the June 16 meeting has noted that the two sides agreed “to further strengthen and deepen the ASEAN-Indian Strategic Partnership for mutual benefit across the whole spectrum of political, security, economic, socio-cultural and development cooperation”. This is a fine aspiration but both India and ASEAN will have to really work to achieve it. This is especially because the international economic situation continues to be under enormous stress because of the impact of the covid-19 pandemic. To that has been added the deep dislocation caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Interestingly, there is simply no mention of Russia’s actions and its consequences on the world in the Co-Chairs statement). Besides, with the world order established after the Second World War under a Chinese challenge ASEAN member-states have to keep their ties with China in focus while dealing with India.

Many ASEAN countries bear the imprint of both Indian and Chinese cultures. There are people of Chinese origin in varying numbers in all ASEAN states. Through history China has impacted on the ASEAN countries positively but negatively too. The latter has instilled a traditional attitude of caution in the organisation’s member-states towards China whose aggressive rise and overbearing approaches have only aggravated fears. While wanting to take advantage of Chinese investments and the trade opportunities it offers ASEAN countries have also looked to other powers, including India, to balance China. ASEAN has also favoured multilateralism inter-alia for the same purpose.

The Co-Chairs statement reaffirms India and ASEAN commitment to multilateralism and specifically mentions the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS). ASEAN member-states have long complained that China has been violating their maritime rights in the South China Seas. Indeed China has paid scant regard to the rulings of the UNCLOS Arbitration Tribunal in the context of the South China Sea. It has simply brushed aside the legitimate claims of some ASEAN states. It is significant that the organisation was willing to be indirectly but critically of China in the Co-Chairs statement. For though ASEAN wishes India to contribute to balance China it does not wish to get in any India-China crossfire. This only shows the depth of its resentment against China for the way it is acting in the South China Sea.

Through the past few decades ASEAN has demonstrated that it has no psychological inhibitions to the growth of comprehensive relations with India. It has been difficult though to push relations forward in some critical areas because of problems on both sides. These issues have to be removed and it would be best it ASEAN and India focus their energies on a few critical issues. Heading a list of such issues would be overland connectivity. It has been two decades since an India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway was conceived but it has still to be fully built. The Co-Chairs statement notes that the June 16 meeting “emphasised the need for the early completion and operationalisation of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and looked forward to its eastward extension to Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam…”. Myanmar is an ASEAN member. The nine other ASEAN countries and India have been unhappy with the Myanmar military for once again reverting the country to full-fledged military rule. However, they have not disengaged with Myanmar. The desire that the Trilateral Highway should be completed is an indication that they want infrastructure projects to continue. This is the right approach.

If India and ASEAN countries wish to achieve the full potential of the ties political will and administrative and technical abilities will have to be harnessed by both. That is the task before the Indian and ASEAN leaderships.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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