India recently hosted the G-20 summit, which was dubbed a major diplomatic success. As such, the summit served to showcase India’s multifaceted convening power.
But Southeast Asia was conspicuously absent from the G-20 guest list. Indonesia, the current ASEAN chair was of course invited, as Jakarta is a member of the grouping. So, too, was Singapore, a close Indian partner that is regularly invited to G-20 summits. But a guest invitation could have been extended to Laos, the incoming ASEAN chair, or even Malaysia, which will hold the post in 2025.
Instead, Indian engagement with Southeast Asia was highlighted during the 20th ASEAN-India summit in Jakarta, held just two days before the G-20’s convening. While the ASEAN-India summit made some welcome progress, including a new joint statement on maritime cooperation, there was a missed opportunity to carry over those good feelings to converging interests through the G-20 platform.
More ASEAN invitees at the summit would have allowed the bloc to give cognizance to India’s dynamic role and growing significance in Southeast Asia and beyond.
Three key outcomes of the G-20 summit were the momentous inclusion of the African Union as a permanent member of the group, the launch of the Global Biofuel Alliance and the announcement of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor through the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment launched last year.
These takeaways from India’s G-20 presidency and summit reveal New Delhi’s key priorities: amplifying the voice and visibility of the Global South; sustainable development through international cooperation and technological advancements; and connectivity on its own terms with the Middle East and Europe.
These feed into India’s broader aspirations of being a responsible and autonomous leading power or “Vishwa Guru,” as Prime Minister Narendra Modi calls it. While this does not come without challenges, New Delhi is proving to be rather adept at taking center stage and punching above its weight in global affairs.
For ASEAN, the rise of India will, understandably, not be the easiest thing to calibrate or adapt to, given how bilateral relations have been stuck in a self-imposed comfort zone for more than three decades. Neither side has proved adept at recognizing change or altering perceptions of the partner and partnership. Relations are defined by older, outdated and “safer” narratives, so much so that they do not reflect current realities. A good example is ASEAN’s banal response to India’s Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative.
India’s G-20 summit and its outcomes present an opportunity for ASEAN to address this, both structurally and functionally. The seminal event is a chance for ASEAN to understand its long-standing partner in the new decade and find imaginative ways to address challenges and work together, beyond the commitments made in each ASEAN-India summit.
As noted above, one of the key outcomes of the New Delhi summit was the African Union (AU)’s inclusion in the G-20. The AU becoming a permanent member of the G-20 during India’s presidency can be seen as a culmination of New Delhi’s accelerated re-engagement with Africa in recent years. Other initiatives like the India- and Japan-led Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, the India-Africa Forum Summit, and the Africa Outreach initiative fill in New Delhi’s vision of deeper functional ties with Africa.
With that in mind, ASEAN-Africa relations can be supported, advanced, and brokered by India within existing frameworks and initiatives. It is noteworthy that ASEAN, unlike India, does not have robust political relations with African nations. Only five (Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, and Zimbabwe) out of 54 African countries have ambassadors to ASEAN.
Despite the prevalent rhetoric of Asia-Africa solidarity, ASEAN and Africa still lack formal institutional and trade links. In 2021, although interregional trade increased, Africa remained a small part of Southeast Asian trade, with only around 2 percent of its total market. This is a missed opportunity and India could be ASEAN’s solution to this.
Likewise, the launch of the Global Biofuel Alliance (GBA) is an opportunity for ASEAN, if it chooses to seize the moment.
The GBA aims to serve as a catalytic platform, fostering global collaboration for the advancement and widespread adoption of biofuels. The alliance also aims to act as a central repository of biofuel-related knowledge and expert hub. Singapore has signed on as an observer country, which is an important development.
The platform will have major knock-on effects for ASEAN, as Southeast Asian states are some of the leading suppliers of biofuel. In recent times, the feedstock crunch has posed a challenge to ASEAN member states’ biofuel production and net-zero aspirations.
Research and development on advanced biofuels are also at early stages in ASEAN. The GBA’s aim to expedite the global uptake of biofuels through facilitating technology advancements could complement ASEAN’s efforts. As coordinator country for India until 2024 and as a GBA observer, Singapore is positioned strategically to establish a beneficial ASEAN-GBA connection.
ASEAN should also attempt to leverage the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), seeing how connectivity remains a top priority for the bloc. The launch of the IMEC is expected to stimulate economic development through enhanced connectivity and economic integration between Asia, the Gulf states, and Europe. It comprises two legs: an eastern corridor connecting India to the Arabian Gulf and a northern corridor connecting the Arabian Gulf to Europe.
Upon completion, IMEC will provide a cost-effective cross-border ship-to-rail transit network to supplement existing routes – enabling goods and services to transit to, from, and between India, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and Europe.
With similar ongoing connectivity projects like the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, which connects Southeast Asia and India by road, capitalizing on an initiative like IMEC could elevate the partnership and be mutually beneficial. IMEC could, in effect, be extended ever farther east to link ASEAN member states to Europe via India and the Middle East.
Following India’s successful G-20 summit, the time is ripe for ASEAN to reimagine its relations with India. ASEAN-India cooperation must be contextualized and reflect each side’s abilities and approaches to the emerging regional order shaped by geopolitical developments.
A three-decade-old partnership does not have to stay “old.” ASEAN’s creative and cognizant engagement with New Delhi can and must change with the times.