By: Neeta Lal

In a signal that India is belatedly eager to assert a commitment to Southeast Asia, and that Southeast Asia is looking for a strategic counterweight to Beijing, the leaders of all 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations paraded through New Delhi over this weekend as guests for India’s 69th Republic Day celebrations, which began on Jan. 26. 

The high-wattage presence of the heads of government from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Brunei marks a break from tradition for India, which usually invites just one chief guest for the fest. As Modi declared in a radio address: “This time, not one but 10 chief guests will grace the Republic Day. This is unprecedented in India’s history.”  

While the celebration is largely symbolic, it does demonstrate that ASEAN is interested in balancing the growing influence of China, with its vast “Belt and Road” infrastructure scheme to tie the region together, and that the Indo-Pacific concept outlined earlier by former US President Barack Obama is gaining traction.

At that, India is late to the game. The BRI, as China’s initiative is known, was put into place five years ago has been called “the most ambitious geoeconomic vision in recent history” by the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, spanning 70 countries and including the potential for Chinese investment – at often near-usurious lending rates – of US$4 trillion. It is designed to see that all roads lead to Beijing as 2,000 years ago all roads led to Rome.

By contrast, tiny Bhutan remains India’s biggest recipient of foreign aid, followed at a distance by Afghanistan.

India conducted a two-day India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit to mark the event, celebrating 25 years of a partnership that has mostly been notable for its nonexistence. The summit focused on boosting cooperation in the key areas of counter-terrorism, security and connectivity to counter Beijing’s economic and military assertiveness. The group has agreed to set up a mechanism on maritime cooperation to counter the common “traditional” and “non-traditional” challenges they face.

Expectedly, the event was closely watched by Beijing, whose foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters wryly that “China is open to all countries developing friendly relations. So, we’re okay with India developing friendly and cooperative relations with ASEAN countries.”

However, there’s no denying that the procession of dignitaries is an indication that the ASEAN nations are willing to accept India as a significant regional player amid China’s growing assertiveness. India presents the ASEAN countries with opportunities for connectivity initiatives emanating from its own soil as well as investing in infrastructure projects within India. This helps ASEAN nations avoid putting all their eggs in the China basket.

Columnist Vinay Kaura, writing in First Post, pointed to recent global turning points as China’s unprecedented economic and military ascent, the visible decline of America’s global pre-eminence, and a wider spectrum of conflict in the Middle East. “All these are forcing emerging powers into a search for new partners, new markets and new alliances. In this fast-changing scenario, a role for Asia, with India and China at the forefront is inevitable,” Kaura wrote.

It helps that India has gained respect among ASEAN member nations after it stayed away from Beijing’s belt and road initiative despite Chinese attempts at persuasion. Delhi believes BRI is an attempt to clip India’s own wings and build a Chinacentric world order. With its growing stature in the region, New Delhi is loath to accept Chinese domination in its own neighborhood.

China has been expanding its presence in South Asia, building ports and power plants in countries around India’s periphery including Pakistan and Sri Lanka. India has countered this by beefing up its infrastructure and standing up to China’s incursions along its north-eastern borders, and quietly in Afghanistan. New Delhi is also liaising with Washington and Tokyo who view India as a bulwark against China as US influence has waned. The newly formed Quadrilateral comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US aims to achieve just that.

With many of the ASEAN members locked in maritime disputes with Beijing, critics say, the former are relying on broadening their linkages with countries such as India. The latter alone in Asia has the size, demographics, economic potential, military capability and civilizational depth to act as a countervailing force to China’s hegemony. 

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose country Singapore currently chairs ASEAN, said the grouping believes that “India makes a major contribution to regional affairs, helping to keep the regional architecture open, balanced and inclusive.”

There are many areas of convergence between India and ASEAN member states. At the summit, Modi emphasized that India shares ASEAN’s vision for rules-based societies and peace. “Freedom of navigation will be a key focus of India-ASEAN in the maritime domain,” he said. “India shares ASEAN’s vision of peace and prosperity through a rules-based order for the oceans and seas. Respect for international law, notably UNCLOS is critical for this. We remain committed to work with ASEAN to enhance practical cooperation and collaboration in our shared maritime domain.”

As Kanti Bajpai writes in his column for The Times of India, “India has quietly gone about building diplomatic and even military links with virtually every country in ASEAN. Delhi has strategic dialogues with the major states in Southeast Asia and holds military exercises. It makes port calls. It trains personnel and repairs equipment. It sells arms and provides military credits to some. It likely shares intelligence too with select partners. During the 2004 tsunami, the Indian navy sailed to the rescue, along with American, Australian and Japanese navies.”

India has already been pursuing an “Act East” policy of developing political and economic linkages with Southeast Asia. However, policy pundits say India’s efforts lack the zeal and ambitiousness of China. The latter’s trade with ASEAN was more than six times India’s in 2016-17 at $470 million. While China-ASEAN trade accounts for 15.2% of the block’s total trade, its trade with India only constitutes 2.6 percent.

In addition, India and ASEAN have been unable to operationalize the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a proposed free trade agreement between six ASEAN states. The other five are Australia, China, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand. If this FTA comes into force, it could become the biggest trading block in the world. A significant feature of the RCEP will be a reduction in tariffs across a majority of traded goods and services, thus allowing each economy greater access to another’s market for their products. better maritime and road connectivity.

Integral to the regional partnership is the construction of the 1364-km India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) Trilateral Highway that is intended to connect Moreh, located in the Chandel district of Manipur, to Mae Sot in Thailand via Tamu in Myanmar. The plan also involves extending this road link to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

Be that as it may, while pomp and show make for good optics, matching up to Beijing’s clout and winning influence in the region will need some serious efforts on India’s part. It is only starting and there is a long way to go.

Neeta Lal is a senior journalist based in Delhi and is a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel.