Editorial Articles

volume-45, 3-9 January, 2018


India-ASEAN Relations: From 'Look' to 'Act' East Policy

Prof. Swaran Singh

India's Republic Day celebrations this year witnessed a spectacle of having ten chief guests. Only twice in its post-independence history, India's Republic Day celebrations had seen two compared to usual one foreign leader as chief guest. This time round, however, national leaders of all the ten members of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) visited New Delhi to participate in a commemorative India-ASEAN summit marking 25 years of their Dialogue Partnership and this was followed by all of them together joining the President of India at the Republic Day parade that showcases India's military might and cultural diversity -- both of which have since emerged as defining pillars of India's growing integration with these nations.

Last 25 years of India's Look East Policy has been one celebrated component of India's foreign policy since it was enunciated in 1992 by prime minister Narasimha Rao. It was part of global structural changes following the collapse of former Soviet Union that Rao had sought to connect his opening up of India's economy with building closer ties towards these tiger economies of Southeast Asia. The 1990s was the decade that also saw expansion of ASEAN from six to ten members. Addition of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam thus were to bring ASEAN closer to share long land borders with India's sensitive northeastern region. Compared to original six ASEAN members whose economies were much advanced, these new members were less developed. This was to open new opportunities for India's investments, technology and skill transfers through training and education making it an influential player in ASEAN seeking to handhold these new members' development process. At the same time, building closer physical connectivity between ASEAN and India's northeastern states was expected to inject development in this restive region and help India resolve their persistent political turmoil as well. This was to make their engagements complimentary and of mutual benefit.

The New Context

It is in this relative ease of doing business and flourish in India's engagements with Southeast Asia, rise of assertive China was to become another important driver for their friendship. Debates on the need for India to move over from 'Look' to 'Act' East had been triggered primarily from the 2011 Hyderbad speech of the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. However it was for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to announce this tectonic policy shift from 'Look' to 'Act' East during his debut participation at the 12th ASEAN Summit in Yangon (Myanmar) during September 2014. This was also part of his launching his hyperactive foreign policy of mega-events and action-driven hectic meetings with dozens of global leaders. So this can also be seen as result of prime minister Narendra Modi's visits to nine of these ten ASEAN nations -- some of them even twice -- that his personal rapport with each of these leaders made such a historic feet, of having them all as chief guests at 2018 Republic Day parade, possible. To the least this will be seen as a reset India-ASEAN relations by upping the ante for both sides.

From ASEAN side as well, such unprecedented gesture reflects their strong endorsement of India's ever widening and deepening of its strategic partnership with these Southeast Asian nations that both endorses and celebrates 'centrality' and 'legitimacy' of ASEAN on the driving seat of Asian relations. This centrality of ASEAN has been premised on its parleys not hurting core interests of any of the major powers. But rise of China has seen their turf war hotting up things for this region. In this new context, these growing synergies between India and ASEAN promise to become a catalyst for a gradual drift in discourses from their conventional Asia-Pacific geopolitics towards the newer Indo-Pacific frame of reference with India at its centre. There are already experts who project India trying to fill the vacuum created by rapidly shrinking regional leadership of the United States. ASEAN seems to welcome it such projections.  Indeed since 1990s itself, ASEAN has sought to engage India as an alternative, if not a counterweight, to the unprecedented rise of China.

India, however, has evolved from its policy of nonalignment to multi-alignments so it has so far refused to bite the bait hedging all bets for confrontation with rising China. India's policy of multi-alignments seeks to engage as many nations on as many issues as possible, and this includes engaging China as well. In West Asia, for instance, we are friends with Saudi Arabia, Iran and United Arab Emirates but also with Israel. Same is true of East Asia where India has been closely engaged with Australia, Japan and China as also with Russia and ASEAN.  But increasingly assertive China, especially in face of rapidly shrinking global leadership of the United States has pushed rest of Asia, especially India and ASEAN to follow the example set by European nations in asserting their autonomy from the United States in building regional balance of power to ensure where no single nation is able to flaunt established norms and institutions.

China's Economic Might

Unprecedented economic growth of China since early 1990s have coincided with India's increasing engagement with ASEAN. Indeed, starting from India's decision to become Dialogue Partner of ASEAN in 1992 its follow-up decisions of joining the ASEAN Regional Forum, initiating India-ASEAN summits, or becoming founding member of East Asia Summits have all been viewed as driven by China's increasing influence in this larger region. All ten ASEAN members today see China as their largest trading partner. China's economic might was first put in display during the East Asian financial crisis of 1997 when one-party ruled China proved much efficient to come to their rescue while all other major powers remained trailing behind. Today again China's incessant construction of artificial islands in disputed waters of South China Sea for ASEAN and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor for India seem to bring them closer together and ASEAN once again wishes India to play an assertive role in the region.

So just like the East Asian financial crisis of 1997, presence of all ten ASEAN national leaders at the 2018 Republic Day parade, therefore marks a historic inflection point the evolution of regional balance of power in this region. ASEAN was originally created in 1967 as part of US containment of China and to control spread of communism in general. Thirty years later financial crisis in ASEAN laid foundations of its major economic engagement with China. Therefore both may be desirous of this change yet this poses formidable challenges for both India and ASEAN. China's bilateral trade with ASEAN today stands at $450 billion and India, that currently has a trade of $70 billion with ASEAN, has now decided to take it to $200 billion by 2020 which also seems too ambitious.  Even with the United States that till recently was the greatest influence in the region and voters of propping India as a major player in the region has trade with China that stands five times that of its trade with India.  And now, President Xi Jinping's ambitious Belt and Road Initiatives seems all set to widen these asymmetries further.

China with a $12 trillion economy and a $4 trillion annual trade with $3.5 trillion foreign exchange reserves remains far too strong to India that stands little comparison with its $2.6 trillion economy and less than $1 trillion trade and about $400 million foreign exchange reserves. Politically as well, compared to China's one-party rule and rise of Xi Jinping as China's uncontested supreme leader, India's Westminster system of multiple political parties and diversity-driven federalism have come to be seen as cumbersome in making quick turnarounds. But this is exactly what explains the ongoing shift where India is trying to broad base its relations with ASEAN to front load its advantages over China. While India today seeks to strengthen strategic and economic cooperation with ASEAN, it wishes to locate these as also take these far beyond to emphasise on India's robust democracy and civilisational connect with Southeast Asian nations. This broad-based engagement of India and ASEAN promises to prove India's greatest advantage against China's economic prowess and commerce driven engagement of ASEAN.

Strengthening Norms and Institutions

Countering China's display of military and economic prowess, India also seeks today to strengthen rule of law that ensures that all states respect established norms and institutions. ASEAN today is not just the most institutionalised regional grouping across Asia, it is also the one most acceptable to major world powers who have stakes in peace and stability of this region. These dynamic economies of ASEAN are all democracies and seek to connect India for their democratic credentials. This can also be seen as result of incremental rise of India as also part of global power shift from Atlantic to the Pacific. India-ASEAN relations also present an example of drift from hard to soft power with C3 -- Culture, Commerce, Connectivity -- becoming the buzzword for their future collaborations. Neither India nor ASEAN are known for any territorial aggrandisement or for aggressive behaviour that sets them apart from China. But both sides so far have failed to address or redress their dichotomy of their continued engagement and discomfort with rising economic power of China. In the most recent episode of India's 73-day long military standoff at Doklam that saw India standing up to China, ASEAN was found wary of taking sides. Likewise, India has occasionally endorsed U.S. positions on ensuring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea yet has remained sensitive to China's harsh reactions.

Geo-Civilisational Links

But what gives hope for ensuring efficacy of India-ASEAN joint initiatives is the fact that they now seem to emphasise building their geo-strategic partnerships on their wider geo-civilisational connections. This promises to be both far more enduring and should be far more acceptable to all major world powers as also their populace that will provide domestic constituencies behind their leaders' initiatives. Both India and ASEAN have chosen to focus on highlighting their civilisational links that go back to ancient times and had thrived till the end of first millennium when Islam and later Christianity were to become a stronger influences. Ancient epic of Ramayana remains India's umbilical cord with each of these nations that have, over centuries, evolved their own versions yet Ramayana remain central to their cultures and everyday life. No doubt the commemorative India-Asian summit issued a special postal stamp on Ramayana on 25th June and New Delhi hosted a week-long Ramayana  festival starting 20th January 2018. This festival showcased various versions of Ramayana performed by over 120 artists from these ten Southeast Asian nations.

Buddhism remains their equally strong connection. Prince Sidhartha was born in Lumbini in Nepal. But he attained enlightenment and Buddhism, therefore, was born at Gaya in India. Later, it was King Asoka the Great who popularised Buddhism across Asia, especially Southeast Asia. Today, Buddhism is State Religion in Cambodia and 95 percent of Thailand, 87 per cent of Myanmar, 33 per cent of Singapore, 20 per cent of Malaysia, 12 per cent of Vietnam population are Buddhists. But here again, last decade has seen China leading the World Buddhist Forum with biannual mega congregations. These were initiated in 2006 by China's president Hu Jintao but organised by China's current President Xi Jinping who was then Party Secretary in Zhejiang. India has also been making similar efforts but both India and ASEAN need to work together to ensure that China is not allowed to hijack this cultural discourse as well. Buddhists in China, especially in Tibet, have faced difficult times for their dissensions and even in China they have sustained their close connections with India. So in being a pious link in building inter-societal relations, Buddhism should not be allowed to become victim to complex inter-state equations.

Other than Buddhism, Indonesia and Malaysia respectively have 87 per cent and 61 per cent Muslim populations and the Philippines has 92 per cent Christian population yet given India's multicultural history and milieu they feel equally connected to India. Indeed, successive leaders of ASEAN's largest nation, Indonesia, have repeatedly underlined that while they may follow Islam as their religion and faith yet they remain culturally rooted to Indian traditions. India is home to world's second largest Muslim population and a large Christian population. This enduring Indian multicultural connect till date reflects itself in Southeast Asian languages, names, folklore, sculpture, architecture, songs and musical traditions.  As late as 802AD King Jayavarman had united all Khmer groups to establish his Kingdom of Kambuja (today's Cambodia) and Angkorvat -- renovations of which has seen India's continued participation -- represents today perhaps the most apt symbol of their enduring close geo-civilisational connections.

The Way Forward

To conclude, therefore, it is this geo-civilisational connect of India and ASEAN that undergirds their geo-strategic partnerships. No doubt China also has had cultural connect with Southeast Asia but its Cultural Revolution had privileged ideological links over culture and recent past has witnessed China emphasising on its stronger commercial connections with ASEAN. This is partly what makes both India and ASEAN seem increasingly ill-at-east with assertive China. And this is also what promises to keep India and ASEAN closer together. With exponential inclusion of technologies empowering common people inter-societal connections will become increasingly influential in determining state policies. And as India and ASEAN explore into their unique elements that will strengthen their synergies their democratic systems and connect with common people will stand out as their advantage to counter China's negative influence on their own national interest and aspirations. This is what explains their attempts to broad base India-ASEAN partnerships by backing their inter-state initiatives with inter-societal liaisons, people-to-people at all levels of skill building, trainings and information exchange. They today are seeking to compete China's sharp power with their peoples' smart power.

(The Author is Professor at School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)