With characteristic flamboyance, Prime Minister Modi has stretched a friendly hand to Asean in a manner that has never been done before by India’s government. Republic Day, the country’s most solemn ceremonial occasion, when a specially chosen guest from among prominent global leaders is customarily invited to share the dais with India’s own topmost leadership, was marked this year by an unprecedented eastward outreach, with a galaxy of leaders from Asean making up a tally of eminent guests to share the honours with Indian counterparts. It is only relatively recently that South-east Asia as a whole has begun to play a much bigger part in the affairs of the region, and with India’s re-shaping of its eastward ties its strong natural affinities with SE Asia have been reaffirmed, especially the cultural and historic links that had been somewhat eclipsed in former years at a time when economic and commercial ties dominated the discourse.

There was always plenty of goodwill between India and the SE Asian region but not much sustained effort to develop and upgrade relations. India can legitimately take credit for the important change it brought about some two decades ago with its ‘Look East’ policy aimed at developing ties with the economically successful countries of East Asia that had hitherto shown only limited interest in India. However, once articulated the eastward strategy soon became established as a new economic frontier where India had important stakes and interests.

India’s initiative towards Asean was reciprocated from the other side where there was also a desire to build up and strengthen ties. Possible constraints and questions were rapidly overcome, the most immediate being what some members of Asean saw as an incompatibility between their pattern of development and that of India. Asean had flourished as an area of liberalized trade with minimal official intervention, whereas India had erected a number of barriers and safeguards in keeping with its wish to maintain a bigger share and a commanding position for the state, and some members feared that association with India could become a constraint to the rapid growth of Asean as a whole. However, such apprehensions were overcome and did not curb the rapid development of relations in response to the ‘Look East’ policy, which soon took root and brought India and Asean into progressively closer proximity with each other. Up to a point, Asean saw itself as a pathfinder for India, for the liberalizing economic path it had chosen had gained strength globally, and could give pointers for the benefit of major emerging economies like India.

Beyond that, Asean has become an increasingly confident and effective organization with its own style of doing business. It has long adopted pragmatism as its watchword, keeping well clear of ideologically and politically charged actions that could encourage differences among its members, and preferring a low profile in dealing with controversy. This is now a deeply ingrained way of proceeding for Asean and affects the relationship it establishes with other countries and multilateral bodies.

In this context, it may be worth recalling that a US-led effort aimed at Myanmar when that country was under international sanctions for its failures on human rights could not be followed up effectively within the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) when it was raised there, despite the strong pressures from non-regional participants. The presence of so many leaders from Asean at India’s Republic Day is to be valued both as a ceremonial gesture and also as an affirmation of many shared values among countries of the Indian Ocean.

The Republic Day gathering in New Delhi, apart from highlighting India’s growing strategic reach, also served as a reminder of the major changes currently under way in the region among which is the accretion of economic and military strength to China. Ever since China shed the constraints that had held it back and embarked on the great economic acceleration that has made it the second economy of the world, there has been a parallel and concomitant strategic shift in Asia. With this, the Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean has been greatly expanded and its maritime capacity, formerly rather limited, is now able to challenge that of its neighbours, and continues to expand rapidly.

This has had a number of significant consequences: in its surrounding seas China has started out on a policy of stronger assertiveness. It has made territorial claims to island shoals and other such maritime features, which claims have been challenged by others, including several nations of Asean. Some of those in contention with China have been able to obtain international adjudication in their favour under the provisions of the international treaty on the Law of the Sea, but this does not seem to have had much effect on the situation.

What needs to be noted, however, is that China’s rise in the Indian Ocean is taking place at a time when India is also on the rise in the same waters. This development could not have escaped notice or failed to be a factor in the Indian outreach to Asean, or in the positive response it received from the invited participants. For India the issue is especially fraught because the Chinese presence has expanded into surrounding seas that India considers strategically sensitive. In this context is to be noted the setting up of a number of new naval establishments that project China’s presence and authority. Even in a place as close to India as Sri Lanka, a traditional friend and associate of long standing, the Chinese presence, driven largely by its economic muscle, has become significant.

These changes in the actions and ambitions of the littoral powers have brought new challenges to the Indian Ocean. What used to be a relatively quiet and sedate part of the high seas has become much more active, and the pace of change is accelerating. Nor is it a localized affair, for the ramifications of what is taking place are widespread and far-reaching.

Some of the countries of the region have felt it desirable to club together in something dubbed ‘The Quad’, or a consultative group of four of the maritime nations of the region, including India, in order to keep an eye on the steady advance of China and to chart where it may be headed. India has valued its independent judgment in foreign relations above all else and cannot be expected to attach itself to any multilateral group, though it may be broadly sympathetic to what it is trying to achieve.

The great gathering on Republic Day showed how things are changing in India’s vicinity. After the visit of the Heads, India will no doubt continue to draw closer to Asean, and has shown that it is ready for the new challenges this will entail.

 

(The writer is India‘s former Foreign Secretary)