Are our interests aligned?

Are our interests aligned?

There is no denying the fact that India's engagement with Southeast Asia has grown by leaps and bounds over the last two decades. From 'Look East' to 'Act East' it has been a long journey but a journey that has now become firmly anchored in the wider Indo-Pacific. At a time when we are talking of wider structural changes shaping the Indo-Pacific and India is reimaging its strategic geography, the country's outreach to Southeast Asia becomes all the more important.

The year 2017 has been marked by a celebratory tone with India and the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) commemorating 25 years of their partnership, 15 years of summit-level interaction, and five years of strategic partnership. The presence of the leaders from the 10-member Asean at this year's Republic Day celebrations underscores the commitment of the two sides to take this relationship forward.

Despite its historical and cultural links with East and Southeast Asia, India in its post-independence foreign policy largely tended to ignore the region. The structural constraints of the Cold War proved too formidable despite India's geographic proximity to the East Asian region. It was the end of the Cold War that really brought East and Southeast Asia back to the forefront of India's foreign policy horizons.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union radically transformed the structure of the then prevailing international system and brought to the fore new challenges and opportunities for countries like India. India was forced to reorient its approach toward international affairs in general and toward East Asia in particular. The government of P V Narasimha Rao launched its 'Look East' policy in the early 1990s explicitly to initiate Delhi's re-engagement with East Asia.

Indian engagement with Southeast Asia in the post-Cold War era has assumed significant proportions and remains a top foreign policy priority for the country's leadership. India is now a full dialogue partner of the Asean since 1995, a member of the Asean Regional Forum, the regional security forum, since 1996, and is a founder member of the East Asian Summit launched in December 2005. India is also a summit partner of Asean on a par with China, Japan, and South Korea since 2002.

Over the years, India has also come to have extensive economic and trade linkages with various countries in the region even as there has also been a gradual strengthening of security ties. Successive governments have made it clear that New Delhi's foreign-policy priority will continue to be East and Southeast Asia.

India's efforts to make itself relevant to the region come at a time of great turmoil in the Asian strategic landscape. Events in recent years have underlined China's aggressive stance against rivals and US allies in Asia, and there may be more tension to come. With its political and economic rise, Beijing has started trying to dictate the boundaries of acceptable behaviour to its neighbours. As a result, regional states have already started reassessing their strategies, and a loose anti-China balancing coalition is emerging.

India's role becomes critical in such an evolving balance of power. India's 'Act East' policy is part of this larger dynamic. As New Delhi has reached out to its partners in South and South-east Asia, the regional states have also shown an unprecedented reciprocal interest in Indian foreign policy priorities.

China is too big and too powerful to be ignored by the regional states. But states in China's vicinity are now seeking to expand their strategic space by reaching out to other regional and global powers. Smaller states in the region are now looking to India to act as a balancer in view of China's growing influence and America's seeming retrenchment from the region in the near future, while larger states see India as an attractive engine for regional growth.

To live up to its full potential and meet the region's expectations, India must do a more convincing job of emerging as a credible strategic partner of the region. Neither India nor the regional states in East Asia have an incentive to define their relationship in opposition to China. But they are certainly interested in leveraging their ties with other states to gain benefits from China and bring a semblance of equality in their relationships. Great power politics in the region have only just begun.

Bridge the disconnect

While New Delhi is seeking to expand economic integration and interdependence with the region and is trying to develop strong security linkages, the partnership with Asean is yet to reach its full potential. Differences remain on the future architecture of regional trade and defence ties are yet to mature. India has been keen on promoting its soft power linkages with the region, which are quite significant but the efforts remain tentative at best.

There has been a sense of disillusionment on both sides about the present state of play in the relationship. While the Asean member-states have been disappointed that India continues to push below its weight in the region, especially compared to its other dialogue partners, New Delhi's expectations regarding a more robust support for its regional outreach too 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 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.

As Indian and Asean leaders celebrate their past achievements, they need to understand that a clear forward-looking roadmap is needed. Not only the region but the wider world will be watching carefully to see if India can indeed match the region's growing expectations.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King's College, London)

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