Shift In Power Equation?

Of India and ASEAN

Jayabrata Sarkar

India, an overpopulated and poor nation, after independence, viewed itself as the hegemon in the South Asian region and as a leader with the Non-Aligned Movement. It hardly mattered on the wider world stage that was gripped by an intense Cold War rivalry between the East and the West. Assessing India's role in world affairs Indian foreign policy in the first four decades evolved as a dual pattern encompassing a global as well as a regional role. The two roles were run on a very different basis as relations with India's neighbours were conducted on a much more realistic policy course as opposed to the moralistic international policy. Nehru's global vision, more popularly known as 'Third World-ism' was based on moral supremacy and leadership of the developing world as well as economic self-sufficiency at home. These moral principles bordering on idealism focussed on superpower domination and anti-imperialism and remained the raison d etre of successive government's political position till the late 1980s.

In the aftermath of the Cold War India's foreign policy formulation began to alter and then experience significant conceptual shifts in the mid-1990s. The backdrop to the changes was the economic reforms which started in 1991. India opened its large insulated captive market to the world for investment for economic growth side-lining the decades old concept of self-sufficiency based on a predominant public sector driven development model. The opening of the Indian economy meant that foreign relations began to represent an economic dimension and trade became a major foreign policy tool.

By the late 1990s India's economic interests began to focus on Southeast Asia and the 'Look East Policy' was initiated as part of India's re-assessment of its role in the wider region. For the first time India was looking at Southeast Asia as a neighbour and as a market for investment and trade. Closer cooperation with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), founded in 1967, whose offer of membership India had refused due to its anti-American world-view, was now seen as a new priority area of India's East Asian assumed momentum in the backdrop of frosty relationships with neighbouring countries and realization that South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was not going to be a huge success in terms of multilateral trade.

India became ASEAN's 'sectoral partner' in 1992 and a full-fledged member in July 1996. At the second ASEAN - India summit in Ball in October 2000 the two signed an agreement to establish a Free Trade Area. Further, the presence of India at the East Asian Summit in December 2005 and its inclusion in the East Asia Community testify to the growing synergy and a future beckoning a greater integration in the region. ASEAN has certainly taken note of the fact that it is in their best interest to include India in a regional framework and thereby capitalize on its emerging strength as a large economic power with an equal measure of economic potential and ample opportunities for 'economies in the region' for years to come.

Post 9/11 India and ASEAN have begun to evolve a stricture of regional peace and security in the region. While terrorism remains a global threat, Southeast Asia, in addition, faces the reality of the rise in China power that is seeking to alter the balance of power in Asia in the backdrop of the declining presence of USA from strategic locations in the region. One of the considerations ASEAN has taken into account while according bigger status to India is definitely the issue of China's rising profile and especially its naval incursions into South China Sea, a waterway through which world's one-third shipping transit passes through and considered to hold huge oil and gas reserves beneath its seabed. China historically claims it as its own casting aside protracted maritime disputes it has with Phillipines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan over the sea. Certain news reports suggest that China is building a 'South China Sea island' big enough for military installations. The Southeast Asian countries deem it appropriate to guard against pervasive Chinese influence and have been making efforts to set up vital sea-lanes of communications through the Taiwan, Malacca, Sunda and Lambhok straits. ASEAN countries justifiably perceive India, with the largest naval forces in the Indian Ocean and sufficient nuclear capabilities, a strategic partner to balance China's growing power in the region. From an ASEAN perspective Indian presence in Southeast Asia would provide them with additional 'hedging options' as many 'members' want to see 'all major powers playing a role in their region so that it is not dominated by one or two players, particularly China', says Ian Storey, Senior Fellow of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. India observes the emerging security scenario within the context of the Indian Ocean Region, a theatre of intense rivalry of contending powers, home to two billion people, which serves as a global energy highway with nearly 50% of world's container traffic and 70% of world's petroleum products travelling through its waters. With the imperative of geo-economics over geopolitics and the shift in balance of power from Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, with a strong Chinese presence in the region, India has publicly avoided being drawn into endorsing a 'safeguarding military option' for the Southeast region.

India has vital economic interests to defend in the region.The ASEAN-India Plan of Action to implement the ASEAN India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity (2010-2015) has targeted USD 100 billion by 2015 for ASEAN-India trade. On matters of security and its positive impact on increasing trade relations with ASEAN India has on its part has shown its willingness to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia and its endorsement of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone to indicate its peaceful intent casting aside any apprehension that ASEAN member states might have to possible Indian 'military designs'. At a broader level India has sought to engage ASEAN members in the process of multiple levels of dialogue spanning defence and counter-terrorism seeking to evolve new multiple security structures and institutions in the region. Taking forward the Indo-Pacific regional concept forward ASEAN and India should be more active in pursuing a greater 'strategic certainty' by galvanizing multilateral organizations such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, East Asian Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and various "ASEAN Plus" groupings alongwith moves to rejuvenate the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation. It could then address specific regional issues including energy security and face multifaceted security risks, including those from non-traditional sources ranging from maritime piracy to arms smuggling, illicit drug trafficking, human trafficking, cyber-crime and threats from both state and non-state sponsored terrorism.

Vol. 47, No. 28, Jan 18 - 24, 2015