This week India is hosting the heads of state or government of all ten member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for its annual Republic Day celebrations. The event will be a dramatic declaration of intent by New Delhi to boost its ties with Southeast Asia. The year 2017 was an important landmark as India and ASEAN commemorated 25 years of their partnership, 15 years of summit-level interaction, and five years of strategic partnership. The challenge now is to map out the next steps in the India-ASEAN partnership at this time of unprecedented geopolitical flux in the broader Indo-Pacific.
There has been a sense of disillusionment on both sides about the present state of the relationship. While ASEAN member states have been disappointed that India continues to punch below its weight in the region, especially compared to its other Dialogue partners, New Delhi’s expectations regarding more robust support for its regional outreach also have not been met. India’s capacity to provide development assistance, market access, and security guarantees remains limited, and ASEAN’s inclination to harness New Delhi’s offerings for regional stability remains circumscribed by its sensitivities to other powers. The interests and expectations of the two sides remain far from aligned, preventing them from having candid conversations and realistic assessments.
Though the Modi government’s “Act East” policy is aimed at enhancing India’s strategic profile in East and Southeast Asia, New Delhi’s main focus remains on South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. There has been a shift in emphasis, of course, with India moving away from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and asserting its centrality in the evolving geography of the Indo-Pacific. But this is no match for China’s regional profile, which is largely based on viewing Southeast Asia as its backyard. India’s economic focus too is not in tune with other regional powers, which view ASEAN as an important market for their exports and investments. India’s export sector remains weak and the government’s focus has shifted to boosting manufacturing domestically.
India’s interest in ASEAN as a multilateral forum remains lackluster as it continues to privilege bilateral partnerships to further its own interests. As New Delhi’s gaze shifts to the Bay of Bengal, Myanmar and Thailand have emerged as key players in its southeastern outreach. The hope is to use these nations as a bridge to SEAN. The temptation to prioritize these countries over others at ASEAN may also prevent others from looking at India as a regional stakeholder. New Delhi is signalling, perhaps inadvertently, that it is more interested in becoming a member of various regional organizations because of global power credentials even when its substantive engagement with such platforms remains limited.
It is important for India and ASEAN to chart out a more operational, though modest, agenda for future cooperation. The three Cs of commerce, connectivity, and culture have been highlighted but a more granular perspective is needed in terms of a forging a forward-looking approach. There is no getting away from enhancing trade and economic linkages between India and ASEAN. The areas where the two need to focus should be new ones like digital technologies, where physical connectivity doesn’t really become prohibitive. India is fast emerging as a major player with significant comparative advantages in this realm. As Chinese digital giants begin to dominate the digital space in Southeast Asia and concerns rise about their ability to own data, Indian IT sector may take some advantage of a seeming reluctance of ASEAN states to put all their eggs in the Chinese basket. India as a facilitator of the ASEAN-wide digital economy will not only challenge China on its own turf but will also emerge as an economic guarantor of its own.
Economic engagement will require better connectivity between India and ASEAN than what exists today. Instead of talking about ASEAN-wide connectivity projects, New Delhi now needs to focus on more effective delivery of projects it is already committed to. In this context, prompt completion of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, which will run from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar, is key. The plan is to extend this highway to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam in an attempt to project India’s role in the emerging transportation architecture in the region. With China having three times as many commercial flights to Southeast Asia as India does, improving air connectivity between India and ASEAN should also be high on the agenda. In the maritime domain, the Bay of Bengal can be used as an exploratory ground for the development of an India-ASEAN maritime framework.
Finally, the cultural connect between India and ASEAN needs strengthening if more stakeholders are to be brought in. While India is offering scholarships to students from ASEAN states to study at the Nalanda University, this initiative should be broadened to include our front ranking institutions such as the IITs and the IIMs. India needs to engage with the best and the brightest of ASEAN, who will drive the regional policy in the coming years. New Delhi is giving more attention to cultural diplomacy in ASEAN but still only three countries in the region – Indonesia, Malaysia, and Myanmar – have Indian cultural centers. Tourism can be further encouraged between India and ASEAN with some creative branding by the two sides.
While India and ASEAN have been very ambitious in articulating the potential of their partnership, they have been much less effective in operationalizing their ideas. The need now is for both sides to focus on functional cooperation and make the idea of India-ASEAN partnership more exciting.