by Saurabh Dubey

India is literally the land of festivals and Indians across the world celebrate every festival with great gusto showcasing glimpses of their rich culture to the people of the world. January 26th is the day when the world’s eyes will be glued to a grand spectacle, our Republic Day. This year the stage will have to be built bigger and wider to accommodate the ten Heads of States from the ASEAN region. An ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit will be held in New Delhi on January 25, 2018, marking 25 years of ASEAN-India relations.

And the next day will be the ‘R-Day’. From tanks, missiles and radars to captivating cultural tableaus, from the thundering march pasts of India’s elite regiments to hearing the sonic booms of fly pasts of roaring fighter planes, this is India’s might in all its glory, which will be magnified ten times for the world to watch. There will be two countries I won’t say which but they proclaim to be iron brothers, whatever that means in their fantasies, will be keeping a keen eye on the developments of that day. The small brother will do its best in its usual/annual effort to mount spectacular terrorist attack on or before every Republic Day to spoil India’s big day in the eyes of the world, and the incessant ceasefire violations should be indicative of their plans. The big brother will show incorrigible symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) by publishing articles written in poor taste to show its frustration. But who in the world cares about their antics and opinions as it will be India’s grand day.

The exclusive and expansive guest list is as follows: Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte of The Philippines, Joko Widodo, the President of Indonesia, Najib Razak, Prime Minister of Malaysia, Nguyen Xuân Phúc, Prime Minister of Vietnam, President Halima Yacob of Singapore, President Htin Kyaw of Myanmar, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha of Thailand and Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith of Laos.

India and the ASEAN countries share geographical, historical and civilizational ties and all these nations still have strong remnants of a shared heritage which is even reflective today in the innumerable temples, its deities and cultural norms that have a special connection to the Indian culture. And the most symbolic example of this cultural connection is the re-enactment of the famous Hindu epic ‘The Ramayana’ in its indigenous forms in many of the ASEAN countries. These rich civilizational ties need to be reinforced by greater commercial and strategic engagements. The reinvigorated ‘Act East Policy’ looks to elevate these aspects of the Indo-ASEAN relationship so the immense potential of trade and tourism that exists between India and the ASEAN countries can reach its true untapped potential. The two way trade between India and ASEAN is approximately USD 71 billion in 2016-17, which falls way behind the ambitious target that was set at USD 100 billion in 2012.

India has taken steps in the right direction to address the issues of a need for greater engagement with the ASEAN countries. Last December, at the ASEAN-India Connectivity Summit held in New Delhi, India proposed to commit a line of credit of USD 1 billion that would promote physical and digital connectivity between India and the ASEAN countries. 

India and the ASEAN countries are also in talks of extending the India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) Highway up to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam as well. Even Japan has begun collaboration with India on joint infrastructure projects that would create a land bridge from the North Eastern States meandering its way into the ASEAN countries from Moreh (Manipur) to Mae-Sot in Thailand to Laos, Cambodia and to Vietnam. Just imagine driving your way through these countries, the opportunities for deeper cultural interaction and people to people contacts, the lucrative potential for enhanced trade and tourism which will ultimately generate employment are just some of the bright prospects of this partnership. It’s a win-win situation for both India and the ASEAN countries to fast track these projects and foster greater economic and cultural cooperation.

India needs more markets for its rapidly growing economy and the ASEAN region has some of the fastest-growing economies in the world with 620 million inhabitants and a combined GDP of $2.55 trillion. ASEAN offers enormous economic opportunities for India to expand its trade basket. Just as India is keen to access new markets, the flourishing ASEAN economy needs to find new markets of its own and India presents itself as a $2.2 trillion economy, a sizeable country of continental dimensions with a population of over 1.2 billion. India’s growing economy needs newer markets as well as diverse sources for energy supplies. Indonesian coal imports and oil exploration deals with Vietnam are novel steps in diversifying sources for energy needs in face of growing energy demand for India’s burgeoning economy.

There is also a strategic need for India to have more robust engagements with the ASEAN region. Like China has encircled India in its neighborhood through cheque book diplomacy and predatory economic practices, India can forge deeper strategic ties with ASEAN countries with its impeccable goodwill, ancient cultural ties, considerable presence of Indian Diaspora and an ever increasing stature of being a rising and a responsible global power. Most ASEAN countries are apprehensive about China’s increasing belligerence as it wields its economic clout and military muscle over them, which has led to considerable weakening of unity among these nations. Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have become the weak links. These ASEAN states favorably view the ease of access to Chinese funds which comes with no ‘human rights’ strings attached unlike the stringent scrutiny which the Western democracies consider while making such decisions. Initiatives such as OBOR have fueled concern among many Southeast Asian countries about the inherent security risks of economic overdependence on China. 

China is the largest foreign investor in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar and has expanded its presence in Thailand too. In exchange for aid and investments in infrastructure, China gets access to natural resources such as minerals, oil, gas and timber. And also in some instances unbridled access is granted to land owned by locals on which their livelihoods depend. These locals are forcefully evicted from their homes to make way for posh residential and commercial properties built by Chinese companies using Chinese labor. Amongst the vulnerable ASEAN countries, Cambodia stands out in its unequivocal support for China in its ongoing territorial dispute over the South China Sea. Much like the SAARC has been bogged down by Pakistan’s nefarious role; likewise Cambodia has failed ASEAN in its bid to present a united stand against China’s aggressive maneuvers in the South China Sea and has also prevented any kind of protests against the undue economic leverage that it wields over the other poorer members of the region. Beijing can coerce, influence and at times overrule ASEAN decisions by controlling only a few of its members and derail all attempts by this grouping to challenge China’s hegemonic designs in the region.

Unlike China, India is simply focused on the objective of entering into deeper economic engagement with the ASEAN region in its pursuit for an enhanced mutually beneficial relationship in an increasingly volatile Geo-political environment. Robust economic and cultural ties alone can lay a strong foundation for a comprehensive partnership which may involve potentially closer and deeper military and maritime engagements too (Last November India and Singapore entered a bilateral naval cooperation agreement and agreed to increase cooperation in maritime security, increase visits to each other’s ports, and facilitate mutual logistics support in the Malacca Strait. Likewise, India and Indonesia in early this January held their first security dialogue, and agreed on "operation cooperation" in security and counter terrorism). India as an objective outside observer along with other like-minded democracies can voice its rightful opinion for countries to follow an international rules based order, but it is up to ASEAN and ASEAN only to voice their collective disapproval about the explosive situation in the South China Sea to show the combined strength of its resolve and not bow down to a domineering power which uses military, economic, diplomatic and psychological levers to brow beat smaller neighbors.

The elephant in the room, rather the dragon in the room looms large on the minds of the ASEAN leaders. In India they see a great equalizer, as it was India that stood its ground at Doklam and it was India that raised its unequivocal objection to OBOR and its principles. But ASEAN too has to get its flock together, some show ambivalence in confronting Chinese high handedness in the South China Sea, some show deference to Chinese aid, some show defiance when their territorial integrity is impinged. These disjointed and at times disharmonious actions puncture the collective ASEAN resolve to decisively tell China, not to exploit their natural resources in return for aid, vehemently oppose the building of dams on trans-national rivers and oppose militarizing the SCS by creating artificial islands, and last but not the least to follow international rules based order. But here too China has effectively used the British Raj adopted ‘divide and rule policy’ to plant fissures between the more stable and prosperous ASEAN countries and the poorer ones by supporting regimes that are submissive to the Chinese clout and dismissive of their own people’s opinion on the impending economic and environmental disasters that will ensue in the long run as a result of Beijing’s overreaching influence.

There could be a way to wriggle out of this Chinese chokehold for the vulnerable ASEAN countries, only if these countries want to. ASEAN needs to set its own house in order first, be a collective unit not only on paper or summits and conferences but also in strategic terms. 

Saurabh Dubey is a keen observer of Geo-politics and a Research Analyst on the same subject. Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IDN. IDN does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same