India will have to show ambition and capacities and ASEAN will have to shed its hesitations vis-a-vis India in the security arena

by Arvind Gupta

The unprecedented convergence of 10 heads of state or governments from ASEAN for the 69th Republic Day parade will showcase the groups' growing solidarity with India.

'Act East Policy' is India's answer to the rapid geopolitical transformation in the Indo-Pacific region and the presence of ten ASEAN leaders to commemorate India's vibrant democracy and cultural diversity will not be lost, particularly in Asia.

China's distinctly hegemonic moves in the last few years in the South China Sea and its growing assertiveness has made ASEAN look towards India as a 'partner' for equilibrium. Despite FTA in services and investments with India, ASEAN's trade in 2016-17 was only $71 billion, in comparison to the $470 billion trade with China. ASEAN economies depend upon China for survival but the members are uncomfortable with it.

The full potential of India-ASEAN relations has to be tapped. Culture, which can provide strong binding force has been neglected for too long despite the rhetoric. The neglect of Bodh Gaya, the holiest of place for Buddhist pilgrims, is baffling. The Nalanda University Project has been a disappointment. ASEAN, on its part, should be more ambitious with defence and security cooperation with India. Can India think of exporting its Light Combat Aircraft and other defence equipment to ASEAN? India should propose solid, concrete projects for defence cooperation and deliver on them.

The revival of the India-Australia-US-Japan Quad in the context of Indo-Pacific reflects India's move towards extending its 'Act East Policy' beyond ASEAN. To reassure the grouping, India has been careful in emphasising ASEAN's centrality in Indo-Pacific. What do ASEAN countries think of 'Indo-Pacific' idea? There should be a serious dialogue with the member nations on this.

If China scares ASEAN, the US confuses them. The unilateral withdrawal of the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership has left many ASEAN members even more dependent on China which is moving rapidly to fill the vacuum left by the US withdrawal. They see erosion in the US influence in the region and its capability to stand up to China.

India will have to show ambition and capacities and ASEAN will have to shed its hesitations vis-a-vis India in the security arena. New areas of cooperation, particularly, in science and technology, space security, food security, cyber security, need to be explored.

The Republic day parade is a good occasion to give a new direction to the India ASEAN cooperation and announce some big ticket items.

In 1967 India was offered the membership of ASEAN but it declined because ASEAN was seen as an instrument of cold war politics. With the situation changed, India should make a bid for it if ASEAN membership opens up. This may help it deal with the turbulence in Indo-Pacific better.

Some people are already discussing this possibility. An idea to this effect was mooted at a recent seminar in Delhi.

The writer is director of Vivekananda Foundation and ex-deputy NSA