Professor Harsh V. Pant, Vice-president of the Observer Research Foundation in India and Honorary Member of IRSEA, presents the key takeaways of the ASEAN-India relations in the light of the most recent dynamics in the Indo-Pacific. Departing from the recent ASEAN-India Summit in Cambodia and the ASEAN-India Friendship Year (2022), the Indian pundit points to pathways for India to enhance its presence in Southeast Asia by consolidating its excellent ties with the countries in the region.
Harsh V. Pant*
In the face of geopolitical turmoil and a Chinese exit, India must negotiate its Indo-Pacific trade ties with caution
Last week, India and ASEAN countries gave a new vigour to their ties by establishing a comprehensive strategic partnership at the 19th ASEAN-India Summit in Cambodia. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-India relations and is, therefore, being celebrated as the ASEAN-India Friendship Year. In his remarks, Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar, underlined the “great value” India places “on ASEAN as an important pillar of regional, multilateral global order.”
ASEAN centrality has been a central theme in India’s Indo-Pacific policy and outreach. This was also reiterated by the Vice President when he said that “India supports ASEAN centrality in the evolving architecture in the Indo-Pacific.” The India-ASEAN joint statement while they acknowledging the deep civilisational linkages, maritime connectivity, and cross-cultural exchanges between the two geographies, further tried to galvanise this partnership by focusing on enhancing cooperation in the digital economy, smart agriculture, city-to-city partnerships. Against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, the two sides also decided to “strengthen healthcare for their people by increasing collaboration in public health, including in areas of research and development and public health emergency.” In an important intervention, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. of the Philippines argued that ASEAN countries must not “miss the opportunity of having the ‘pharmacy of the world’ as our close neighbor and partner” and urged them to “work closely with India in ensuring that our region has access to a sufficient volume of affordable, high-quality medicines and vaccines.”
India-ASEAN partnership has certainly grown and today encompasses a wide set of issues ranging “from connectivity to climate change, security to space, education to ecology and technology to trade.” There is a greater appreciation of India’s growing role in the wider Indo-Pacific among the ASEAN members and there is a new momentum in India’s outreach to the a geography critical to ensuring the ever so elusive balance in the emerging maritime confluence between the Indian and Pacific oceans.
But the regional geopolitics and geoeconomics is undergoing a fundamental transformation at a pace that most actors are finding difficult to adapt quickly. The major power contestation of today is putting pressure on the ASEAN in ways it has not experienced since its very inception. For long, the assumption of China as primary economic partner and the US as the primary security guarantor has been at the heart of the ASEAN balance. Today, that balance is falling apart and the Russia-Ukraine war has further aggravated this tension. This sharpening of major power rivalry is threatening the underlying stability on which rested the regional growth and prosperity over the last several decades.
The geopolitical tensions are also producing geoeconomic consequences where issues of trade and technology cooperation as well as supply chain resilience are being examined through a lens that was considered outdated till a few years back. And this is happening at a time when ASEAN remains a divided organisation internally on how to manage these challenges. The grouping remains fractured in its response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on managing the US-China contestation, and closer to home on dealing with the military junta in Myanmar and China’s aggression in the South China Sea. ASEAN will lose its relevance if it continues to be a divided house, unable to forge consensus on critical regional and global issues.
And this matters because all major powers, including India, have ASEAN centrality at the core of their Indo-Pacific vision. ASEAN centrality will have no meaning with a fractured region unable to come to terms with the changing realities around its periphery. With a fragmented ASEAN, Indo-Pacific will continue to exude the instability and tensions that the world is trying to come to grips with at the moment.
This is already evident in the way external powers are projecting their interests in the region. In order to isolate and put pressure on the Myanmarese junta, Washington has placed sanctions on the on the regime as well reached out to the opposition National Unity Government. On the other hand, Russia and China have been trying to do the opposite and even supplying weapons to the junta. In the midst of this, ASEAN’s response has been confusing and muddled. The initiative it seems is with outsiders rather than with the region and that’s not a great message about ASEAN centrality.
And then there is the big question about China’s massive economic footprint in the region that gives Beijing a distinct advantage. Other powers have not been able to come up with a viable strategy. Even in the face of South China Sea onslaught, ASEAN members have not been able to push back given China’s role as the primary trading partner of the region with bilateral trade of around $880 billion. But with the US-China confrontation looming, the balancing is likely to become rather difficult. After the setback of Covid-19 pandemic, China is now seeking to revive the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and last week announced a number of new infrastructures projects in Southeast Asia. Under pressure with global supply chains being restructured, Beijing has also announced negotiations on ASEAN-China Free Trade Area “Version 3.0.”
India, therefore, will have to up its game significantly in order to remain relevant in a part of the world that is viewed as critical to the future stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific. Trade and connectivity will be critical in order to enhance its profile in the ASEAN region. But there should also be a concerted attempt by New Delhi to develop strong bilateral partnerships with like-minded partners within ASEAN. This is the age of minilaterals and India should not be shy of exploring them even In Southeast Asia as ASEAN will continue to struggle with its internal cohesion for the foreseeable future.
* Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations with King's India Institute at King’s College London. He is also Director (Honorary) of Delhi School of Transnational Affairs at Delhi University. Professor Pant has been a Visiting Professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore; a Visiting Professor at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi; a Visiting Fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania; a Visiting Scholar at the Center for International Peace and Security Studies, McGill University; a Non-Resident Fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in US-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC; and an Emerging Leaders Fellow at the Australia-India Institute, University of Melbourne. Professor Pant's current research is focused on Asian security issues. His most recent books include India and Global Governance: A Rising Power and Its Discontents (Routledge), Politics and Geopolitics: Decoding India’s Neighbourhood Challenge (Rupa), America and the Indo-Pacific: Trump and Beyond (Routledge), New Directions in India’s Foreign Policy: Theory and Praxis (Cambridge University Press), India’s Nuclear Policy (Oxford University Press), The US Pivot and Indian Foreign Policy (Palgrave Macmillan), Handbook of Indian Defence Policy (Routledge), and India’s Afghan Muddle (HarperCollins). Professor Pant writes regularly for various Indian and international media outlets including the Japan Times, the Wall Street Journal, the National (UAE), the Hindustan Times, and the Telegraph.
This commentary originally appeared in The Financial Express (https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/indias-asean-challenge/2821019/ ) and has also been published on the ORF website (https://www.orfonline.org/research/indias-asean-challenge/?amp) The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.