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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 10 New Delhi February 24, 2018

Beyond the Delhi Declaration: China, India and the competition for ASEAN

Friday 23 February 2018


by Bhartendu Kumar Singh

When India welcomed the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) heads for this year’s Republic Day parade, it also sought to re-invent the Look East Policy (LEP) commissioned 25 years ago, amply reflected in the Delhi Declaration signed along with the ASEAN states. However, the China factor looms large with an unassailable lead in building-up relations with the ASEAN group. This factor, somehow missing in the Delhi Declaration, could derail India’s efforts to establish itself as a significant player into the region.

In its geopolitical calculations, China has for long treated the ASEAN region as its ‘backyard’ or its own ‘Caribbean‘. China’s rising economic, military and political profile have enhanced its involvement into the region along with aggressive posturing on the South China Sea dispute. China’s deep economic integration with the region, supplemented with mega initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) branches have also fuelled China’s Asian dreams of a regional order, often apprehended in the West as a ‘Sino-centric world order’. Today, as Robert Blackwill says, China is openly playing geoeconomics by imposing costs on countries with territorial disputes, disrupting the US system of alliances, and keeping old friends like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar happy.

India, on the other hand, is still on the margins of the ASEAN great game. This despite the fact that it accorded priority to ASEAN as the ‘first regional outreach’ manifested in the LEP of 1992. Despite a reasonable progress of relations with the ASEAN group collectively and with individual member-states, India is simply no match to China. Whether it is trade, tourism, communication linkages and political interface (despite territorial disputes), China is way ahead. For example, the China-ASEAN trade ($ 453 billion) is many times more than the India-ASEAN figure of $ 71 billion. China is ASEAN’s largest trading partner (accounting for 24 per cent of ASEAN’s total extra-regional trade) whereas India is placed at the ninth position (with 2.6 per cent).

India has, therefore, a challenge in managing China’s growing influence in the region and establishing its own presence. The balance-of- power game is being played most fiercely in and around ASEAN. The South China Sea, involving China and many ASEAN countries, is fast turning into a major conflict zone that could, at the minimum, increase and complicate ‘Asian insecurities’ and, at the maximum, lead to a war between China and the US. India cannot be a mute spectator since the deterio-rating regional security environment would affect its growth and development. Also, China’s increasing presence in the ASEAN countries is adding to the fragile and asymmetrical balance of power between China and India that could lead to a possible conflict over oceanic platforms. Few books already stand published on the growing Sino-Indian rivalry in the Indo-Pacific.

India can work on the utilitarian potential of ASEAN against China in many ways. First, as aptly hypothesised in a recent book (The China Questions: Critical Insights Into A Rising Power, Harvard University Press, 2018), there is increasing suspicion amongst China’s ASEAN neighbours that Beijing wants to dominate and control them, while forcing solutions to regional issues through economic influence and military power. China’s aggressive posture on the South China Sea, including rejection of international arbi-tration in favour of the Philippines confirm such trends. Second, ASEAN has been working on the cooperative security model, aimed at securing the region against Chinese bullying tactics and avoid a Sino-American contest for regional supremacy. India adds weight to the collective voice of ASEAN towards the larger objective of securing Asia, being the largest democracy with a rising military profile and a benign image amongst its neighbours. Third, while the US is playing an open turf war to contain China as a regional power, ASEAN is more interested in playing a succinct role in restraining China. The series of dialogues under the aegis of ASEAN are meant as checkers on Chinese ambitions through leveraging other important regional and extra- regional powers. Indirectly, a strong ASEAN can act as a firewall in containing Chinese advance towards South Asia. Fourth, in an anarchical world order that is in ‘disarray’, India needs friends in the immediate neighbourhood. ASEAN is undoub-tedly a potential support pillar for India’s power-games with China.

However, in reaching out to ASEAN, India has to be mindful of certain ground realities. First, except for Singapore, most ASEAN countries suffer from internal political instabilities and do not have strong political-governing structures. China has taken advantage of such murky situations in the past as revealed from Myanmar’s historical experiences. India should be willing to do business with soft authoritarian regimes following the Chinese example. Second, Singapore and Vietnam apart, other ASEAN countries are either under the Chinese sphere of influence (like Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia) or have their own regional ambitions (like Indonesia and Malaysia). India has to reach out to this group as well. Third, India also has the challenge of not portraying itself as an open counterweight to China since this will complicate the fragile security situation around India’s own periphery through increased counterproductive reactions and coalitions from China.

Despite an early start, the LEP of 1992 is yet to evolve into a grand strategy towards ASEAN that would serve India’s desirable foreign policy objectives like neutralising China in ASEAN. The minimum India needs to do is a systematic treatment of the subject through a well-thought-out strategy. Probably, the Delhi Declaration will herald that phase.

The author is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. The views expressed here are his personal opinions.

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