In general terms, compared with the caution of the early 1990s, India is now a reasonably confident participant in the political and strategic domain of the Asia-Pacific. However, in the economic sphere, India is yet to make any notable headway. The recent conclusion of the Indo-Asean free trade agreement exceeded all timelines and it remains to be seen how it will operate in practise.

The leverage exercised by Indian protectionist lobbies on political circles in New Delhi should never be underestimated. In terms of intra-regional trade, in comparison with China, Korea, Japan and the Asean members, India has been insignificant.In general terms, compared with the caution of the early 1990s, India is now a reasonably confident participant in the political and strategic domain of the Asia-Pacific.

However, in the economic sphere, India is yet to make any notable headway. The recent conclusion of the Indo-Asean free trade agreement exceeded all timelines and it remains to be seen how it will operate in practise. The leverage exercised by Indian protectionist lobbies on political circles in New Delhi should never be underestimated. In terms of intra-regional trade, in comparison with China, Korea, Japan and the Asean members, India has been insignificant.

There are several shortcomings in the Indian economy, where the market is virtually closed, the average tariff level high, investment environment poor, and the level of infrastructure development and external trade low, with the result that India is not a highly regarded commercial partner.  Its partnership with East Asia will crucially depend on its capacity for making a distinct contribution towards the progress for closer economic integration in the region.

While India’s economic and political contacts are formal rather than functional, its bilateral defence arrangements with individual Asean countries have assumed greater relevance. India has never clarified what genuine interests it has to defend in the region, but in general terms, its presence is welcome by Asean, an attitude premised on the balance of power.Asean welcomes all major powers to participate in the regional security architecture, but in its view, no single power should be permitted to dominate the area.

This is to India’s advantage. Because India has greater military recourses to share with Asean than vice-versa, defence cooperation has happened to some degree with almost every Asean country ~ in fact more so, in most cases, than with India’s neighbours in the subcontinent. In contrast, there is little Chinese military involvement with Asean other than Myanmar.The Asean Regional Forum is the first multilateral security forum ever to be joined by India.

It had been Delhi’s traditional approach to keep security issues out of the scope of regional groups such as Saarc and the Indian Ocean Rim Association, in both of whose formation it had played a key role.But with the ARF, the objective of ‘containing’ China influenced India to reverse its historical position on such groupings. Competition between Indian and China in the region is predictable because the two countries do not enjoy mutual trust, and there are overlapping perceptions of their historical spheres of influence and interest.

They have made efforts to address bilateral problems with some progress recorded, but given the inherent rivalry and geopolitical interplay, the nature and degree of friction between them is a constant concern of the members of Asean.There is, therefore, a competitive edge in India’s policy, to achieve some kind of equal footing with China. But it will be necessary for India to draw China closer into discussions on cooperation and security in the Asia-Pacific region.

The approach of ‘containing’ China by aligning with some individual powers whose strategic goals and military practices do not necessarily complement ours, nor share the long-term vision of India’s relationship with its northern neighbours, will be most unwise. India’s strategic engagement with Asean should not be dependent only on the China factor, and military means cannot be considered the preferred method of asserting a regional role in preference to the more valuable soft power assets like culture, technology, IT, trade and investment.

India has taken the initial steps to being regarded as a serious partner in emerging Asia, but it will now have to enhance its economic and strategic relevance that are both largely in the potential rather than the actual sphere.India may already see itself as an influential factor in the Asean economic and security space, but this self-perception will not be shared by other major actors. Asean has varied levels of consensus on many issues including security, and many among its ten members regard India only as an Indian Ocean power and not an Asia-Pacific one.

Being part of the Asia-Pacific is a necessity for India’s pursuit of world status, and its friendly ties with USA can boost that strategy, but in matters critical to Asean like the Korean peninsula, the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea, it remains to be seen whether India has the capacity and will to be involved. For instance, it has given no significant opinion on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile ambitions. In security conclaves like the six-power talks on the North Korean nuclear issue, India is not included, and if the six-member ad hoc body eventually morphs into an embryonic Asian security construct, Indian relevance and participation might become a subject of contention.

India will be prepared to play a more energetic role, along with the West, in maintaining the security of international sea-lanes, and its ambitions may be on the right lines, but it has incrementally to enhance its economic integration with other Asian countries. India has to make much greater efforts towards the objective of making Asean an important stakeholder in Indian prosperity. India is still far from being an indispensable country, and the reality is that the gap between China’s and India’s levels of engagement with Asean remains wide, and summit photo-opportunities for our Prime Minister with East Asian leaders will not redress this imbalance.

Military contacts are not nearly as important as economic interdependence, because without such integration, it is premature to talk about any possible role for India in the security architecture in Asia. At this juncture, when the level of acrimony between India and China is disturbing and even reminiscent of the 1950s, it is a sobering though that in the unlikely event of a clash of arms, such international support as India receives will again come, as it did in 1962, mainly from the West, for the West’s own purposes, whereas the so-called non-aligned group of countries will at best sit on the fence, or far more likely, tilt towards our northern neighbour. (Concluded)

The writer is President, Centre for Eastern & North-Eastern Regional Studies, Kolkata.