It was in November 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched ‘Act East Policy‘ at the East Asia and India-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits in Myanmar. The ‘Act East’ Policy is the successor to the Look East Policy, which was launched in 1992 by the then PM Narasimha Rao when USSR disintegrated and India with less friends in the West looked eastwards to form new alliances. The Look East Policy focused on strengthening ties between India and the ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) countries.
To give brief backdrop of ASEAN, it was established on 8 August 1967 in Bangkok by the five original member countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Brunei Darussalam joined on 8 January 1984, Vietnam on 28 July 1995, Laos and Myanmar on 23 July 1997, and Cambodia on 30 April 1999. In 1996, India was welcomed as a full dialogue partner at ASEAN.
In the next few years, India joined many forums of ASEAN such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus), Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF). Apart from this, India boosted its Look East Policy through the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) in the late 1990s.
These forums helped India to bring its point of view to an issue on the table. They have given India a broad scope to strengthen its relationship with these South-Eastern countries. India and ASEAN account for a combined GDP of approximately $3.8 trillion and have about one-third of world’s population. India and ASEAN countries have signed many MOUs related to space technology, counterterrorism and anti-insurgency operations, trade and investment, connectivity and maritime security.
Last year news of India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) Trilateral Highway made waves across different media outlets. But it seems a few roadblocks have emerged from Myanmar in the execution of IMT Highway project, as the new democratically elected government in the country is revisiting the agreements and MoUs (Memorandum of Understanding) signed by the previous administration. Nevertheless, all stakeholders are hopeful about the completion of the IMT Highway in another 18 months.
In the Delhi dialogue head at New Delhi in July this year, Sushma Swaraj reiterated the importance of commerce, connectivity and culture that binds India with ASEAN member nations. To bolster this idea of ‘Panchdhara’ or the five rivers (Ganga and Brahmaputra in India, Irrawaddy in Myanmar, Chao Phraya in Thailand and Mekong in Vietnam) was propagated. Mekong also flows through China Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia.
India has for long showed its image as that of soft power. Through decades this policy has been used by diplomats to bridge the connections between countries. To some extent it works fine but more often than not it is assumed to be weakness rather than strength. Especially in today’s world no country can survive solely on this, it must always put on its defense guard.
India and ASEAN countries apart from having deep cultural and civilization ties have something else in common.
Almost all of them are suffering from bullying by the expansionist mad-dog (China) in South Asia. It’s a country that has not only land issues with its neighbours but also has maritime confrontations with several of them. The South China Sea disputes involve both island and maritime claims among several sovereign states within the region. These countries are Brunei, People’s Republic of China (PRC), Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam.
The disputed area is rich in oil and natural gas deposit, that’s why no party wants to gift it to China. In July 2016, an arbitration tribunal constituted under Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled against the China’s maritime claims in Philippines vs. China. Although, the ruling was not binding on any stakeholder, it boosted morale of small nations who saw this as David vs. Goliath fight.
China neither acknowledges the tribunal nor abides by its ruling. It insists that any resolution of the matter should be made through bilateral negotiations with other stakeholders.
With the tensions rising in Dhoklam (Bhutan) and no end to Indo-China confrontation India must boost strategic partnership with the ASEAN nations. It must take role of the leader in the region. In the past ASEAN nations have failed to stand together. They fail to reach a common point when dealing with the dragon. Each of the ten ASEAN country is incredibly diverse. They have complex relations with China. Vietnam and the Philippines currently have the most strained relationships over contested South China Sea islands. The eight other members, all want to benefit from the economic powerhouse of South Asia (China).There are historical animosities and distrust within the member nations which complicate the matter.
Today China is the largest trading partner of ASEAN while ASEAN is the third largest partner of China. Besides, ASEAN is one of the main overseas investment destinations of Chinese enterprises. At the end of May 2016, China and ASEAN had conducted two-way investment of over $160 billion. The economic dominance of China is forcing ASEAN countries to look for other alternatives. India is the world’s fastest growing economy and it must seize this opportunity without failing.
In the past China never ever claimed the leadership role in cooperation with ASEAN nations. Instead, it amazed everyone by supporting ASEAN to play a dominant role in South Asia. By playing this card China tried to exclude the possibility of anyone else’s (India) claiming leadership in the forum. China for many years has taken advantages of the infighting among the member nations of ASEAN. It has succeeded in its nefarious designs by pitting one nation against other. As there is an old adage ‘United we stand, Divided we fall’. There is strength in unity; India must mediate to settle the differences among the ASEAN member nations. These countries must act as a bloc against the Chinese aggression. India must be at the helm of affairs.
There have been reports that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would invite heads of ASEAN member states to Republic Parade 2018. At a time when India and China are at loggerheads with each other this move would be another diplomatic masterstroke by the government. India and ASEAN have tremendous potential; together they can slay the dragon.