India’s 69th Republic Day celebrations, held on January 26 this year, were marked by the presence of leaders from all ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This was unprecedented; no Republic Day celebration previously has hosted more than two leaders from foreign countries.
This celebration was preceded by the Delhi Declaration, which (among other things) called for deepened counterterrorism ties between India and ASEAN. The declaration touched upon countering the misuse of the internet and the social media, addressing terrorism financing, terrorist recruitment, and a host of other issues.
A significant dictum included the need to combat cross-border terrorism and deprive terrorists of sanctuaries. The declaration also featured text calling for “compliance with the relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding counterterrorism” and to note efforts on the negotiations of the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) at the United Nations (UN). These provisions can be seen as obtuse references to Pakistani based groups like Lashkar E-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad, given India’s efforts to list Masood Azhar as a Global Terrorist by the UN for planning violent attacks against Indian interests. India has long censured its neighbor Pakistan for not cracking down on groups like the LeT who were involved in the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Current Threats and Government Efforts
Broadly speaking, India’s interest in addressing jihadist terrorism domestically works in tandem with ASEAN’s own efforts to douse the flames of Islamist terror in its own backyard. Following the Islamic State-linked siege of Marawi city in the Philippines, which cost the nation about 1,000 civilian and military casualties and an estimated $1 billion in post conflict work, regional countries have issued high alerts regarding terrorism. This, coupled with escalating tensions between Rohingya militants and the Myanmar government, as well as the fear of Islamic State’s returning foreign fighters, has prodded ASEAN members to explore ways to strengthen regional cooperation and combat the persistent threat of terrorism.
In this regard, India has recently become ASEAN’s partner in countering terrorism. The country has experienced a relative amount of success in staving off transnational jihadist organizations internally. For example, the Islamic State has not been able to attract more than 100 Indians (out of more than 170 million Muslims) to travel to its territory since 2014. Similarly, al-Qaeda too has displayed a lackluster presence in the nation, with both itself and the Islamic State having been unable to conduct any significant attacks in the nation over the past four years.
Aside from community measures and religious institutions’ rejection of terrorism in the nation, the Indian government has taken its own steps to prevent these activities, including brisk cooperation with other countries, an energetic cyber presence, and intense scrutiny of various at-risk individuals. Furthermore, the government has also conducted various drives to help rehabilitate susceptible individuals across the nation.
Subsequently, India’s assistance to countries on counterterrorism has proven valuable. Its measures to help build the capacities of the Southeast Asian nations came to prominence during the Marawi siege in the Philippines. Beyond providing a sum of $500,000 to the Philippines, India also sent some of its cyberterrorism experts to train the Philippines’ troops, who were suffering from an acute shortage of such experts.
Similarly, Indonesia recently hosted India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval earlier this year to help formulate effective joint policies on addressing common security issues, including terrorism. This capacity building exchange with ASEAN nations goes both ways, with India recently announcing that it would adopt the Singaporean rehabilitation model to strengthen its own domestic capabilities. This included the adaptation of three-pronged models of rehabilitation involving the police, community leaders, and family members as proclaimed by the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs in January 2018.
The Realpolitik of Counterterrorism Ties
Most of these moves on counterterrorism cooperation stem from India’s growing relations with ASEAN members, especially since the 2012 India-ASEAN Commemorative summit, where India elevated its relationship with the bloc to a strategic partnership. In the past decade, India has been involved in increasing its military diplomacy to the member nations. Having provided a $100 million line of credit to Vietnam to buy naval infrastructure, facilitated training of Myanmar officers in its army, and heightened naval exercises with Singapore, India has been making strong moves to entrench itself.
The enhanced ties between the two entities follow a convergence of interests on various issues connected to the Asia-Pacific region. These include regional stability, maritime security, prevention of terrorism, increased connectivity via sea, land and air, and amplified trade between the nations involved. A large factor that has influenced the ten-member bloc to urge this increased participation is China’s increasing assertiveness in the region. Some countries such as Vietnam even share common grievances with India regarding territorial issues in the South China Seas. This has drawn concern from many countries in the bloc leading to a yearning for a countervailing power – a mantle that India has been trying to don.
For India, notwithstanding its trade ties with China, tensions along the two nations’ joint border hit a crescendo resulting in a nearly three-month standoff at the Doklam plateau in mid-2017. Furthermore, India also has deep misgivings about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has seen China work with Pakistan on projects in the disputed Kashmir region. This is in addition to multiple moves by China that have thwarted India’s attempts to brand Pakistani-based Masood Azhar (who has planned attacks in India) as a proscribed terrorist in the United Nations. Against this backdrop of congruent foreign policy interests, regional rivalries, and national ambitions to become an insurmountable power, India has worked to draw closer to ASEAN members.
Given the geopolitical situation and the enthusiasm demonstrated by the various countries, what will be interesting to note is how the two entities will convert their maturing ties and energetic statements regarding counterterrorism into actual action. The Delhi Declaration has vowed to leverage existing mechanisms and memoranda, such as the ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting on Transnational Crime (SOMTC) and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM-Plus), on countering terrorism.
The countries would do well to also address newly evolving issues such as the proliferation of fake news aiding terrorism, terrorism related funding via cryptocurrencies, and the use of the dark web as a growing online sanctuary. The illicit arms trade in both India and ASEAN nations, which helps fuel terrorism, is another area that the two entities can explore to address terrorism. Notably, India could also learn from Singapore’s approach to pluralism and diversity, a large preventer of terrorism beyond just operational and legal measures. Given India’s volatile communal atmosphere, this should be a key attitude to adopt so as to avoid political violence in the nation.
Moreover, all the nations could use this opportunity as a means to upgrade their capabilities in combating non-Islamist threats, such as the Naxalites in India and separatist militants in Thailand, among others. In sum, growing counterterrorism cooperation between India and the ASEAN nations is currently driven by harmonious security interests, transnational terrorist threats emanating from the continent, and specialized counterterror competencies. Such a relationship provides many new opportunities that should involve specialists from governments, academic institutions, and civil society from all the nations involved.
Mohammed Sinan Siyech is a Research Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence & Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.He tweets at @sinansiyechmd