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An India-ASEAN alliance for Asian integration?

The following article was part of The Gateway of India Dialogue 2016 compendium ‘Where Geopolitics meets Business‘. This piece has been published separately.

The Gateway of India Geoeconomic Dialogue will happen on 13-14 February 2017.

One of the most successful experiments in Asian integration is ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. From fairly timid beginnings in 1967, it has risen to become the leading edge of the integrative process in the biggest and most dynamic continent on the planet.

Since 1990, it has also drawn India into Southeast and Northeast Asia, both economically and geopolitically. New Delhi now is beginning to not just ‘Look East’ but also ‘Act East’. Its activism is largely welcome in the region. The two could innovate further to pull Asia and its partners together.

At the start, ASEAN was preoccupied with containing the spread of communism and ensuring that Southeast Asians built a system of peace within each member country as well as among the members. Economic development was a key ingredient: an economically dynamic ASEAN would reduce the lure of communism; and trade between the members would boost growth, interdependence, and solidarity. In essence, this was similar to the origins of European integration. Like Europe, ASEAN looked to a powerful protector, the U.S., to defend it against communism if the threat became too serious.

Since then, ASEAN has widened its integrative efforts. With the end of the Cold War, it has brought into its fold former regional adversaries, most importantly, Vietnam. It has also gradually enlarged its outreach to other great Asian powers—China, Japan, and most recently, India. It has done this by inviting these and other powers such as South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand into various regional institutions—the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting, the East Asia Summit,  and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

ASEAN has a series of “bilateral” summits with key powers—China, India, the European Union, and the U.S., among others. It also has free trade or comprehensive economic partnerships with China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.

These arrangements together represent an enormous architecture that is pulling most of Asia into a web of integrative security, and diplomatic/political and economic linkages. ASEAN itself is drawing closer internally with the inauguration of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015.

India’s evolving outlook and role

In the 1940s and 1950s, India worked with Southeast Asian countries to further the cause of Asian regionalism. But the India-China war of 1962 and suspicion of Indian non-alignment distanced New Delhi from the affairs of Southeast and Northeast Asia. It was only with the end of the Cold War that India became more welcome in the region.

India’s Look East policy was the vehicle of its return. It has gradually become an integral member of the now expanded ASEAN-led Asian community. India is an attractive partner for two broad reasons: the size and expansion of its market since 1990; and its geopolitical weight in a region that looks at the rise of China with awe and some trepidation. India looks at the region through rather similar lenses: the lure of dynamic economic markets; and comfort in numbers with respect to the Chinese giant. There are other common concerns that have cemented ties:  fear of religious extremism, terrorism, piracy, drugs, human trafficking, disaster management, and epidemics, among others.

Since 1990, India has not only become a member of the alphabet soup of ASEAN-led institutions, it has also entered into a series of bilateral economic and security/defence arrangements with Southeast Asian countries. Its closest partners are Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia. A little farther afield is Australia, with which it now has a growing defence relationship. India has also made its views known on the South China Sea and has agreed to work with the U.S. to promote security in the Asia Pacific. More than ever, India is Acting East.

Parallel integrative processes?

The ASEAN-led integrative process in Asia is now faced with another similar process. This is led by China and encompasses a series of initiatives that have unfolded with great rapidity over the past 2-3 years. They include the BRICS New Development Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the SCO Development Bank, and the ‘One Belt-One Road’ project (funded by the Silk Route Infrastructure Fund).

Will this surpass the ASEAN-led structures, will it work in parallel, or will it gradually merge and link up with the ASEAN system? So far, it seems to be positioned in parallel. But the Chinese structures could merge and link up with the ASEAN system. India and ASEAN countries are members of the AIIB. China has approached India and others in the region to take part in One Belt-One Road.

A third integrative process could be described as being U.S.-led. This is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) arrangement that began with the efforts of smaller countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore and Brunei. Four ASEAN states (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam) are now members of the TPP, which includes Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the U.S., and various other North and South American partners. The U.S. has older integrative links with the region, particularly its alliance and security relationships with Northeast and Southeast Asian countries. Washington’s signing up to and promotion of the TPP is part of its pivot to Asia.

The great era of European integration seems to be faltering with the post-2008 economic crisis and the flow of refugees into the continent. Whether the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) reinvigorates Europe and the North Atlantic remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Asia is poised to see integrative activity to an unprecedented degree. China, India, and Malay cultures fused in Southeast Asia to integrate the region and to connect it to the two giants of Asia. The ASEAN-led process, the incipient China-led process, and the U.S.-led TTP processes could be in conflict. Or they could produce a brilliant new era of Asian integration.

India and ASEAN can have a special role to play in reconciling, fusing, and amalgamating these different processes. They stand between China on one side and the U.S. on the other, geopolitically. They have deep economic and diplomatic links to both. They do not threaten each other: India is not regarded as a threat to Southeast Asian countries, and they are no threat to India. In this sense, they form what the political scientist Karl Deutsch referred to as a security community, a relationship in which there is no fear of war. This security community could be a force for greater Asian integration in the years and decades ahead.

Kanti Bajpai is Professor and the Wilmar Chair in Asian Studies, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. His research and policy interests are Indian foreign policy and national security. He is currently completing a book on India-China relations.

The Gateway of India Dialogue was co-hosted by Gateway House and the Ministry of External Affairs on 13-14 of June 2016. The 2017 conference, The Gateway of India Geoeconomic Dialogue will be held on 13-14 of February 2017.

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