The Diwali celebrations this year coincided with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, the East Asia Summit (EAS) and related meetings with dialogue partners. The 17th ASEAN-India Summit was co-chaired by Prime Minister Modi and ASEAN’s current Chair Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, of Vietnam, on 12 November 2020.
The ASEAN India Strategic Partnership is an important part of India’s Act East Policy, especially since India has chosen not to join the recently signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
But this year PM Modi gave primacy to the Indo-Pacific region. That’s because a cohesive, responsive and prosperous ASEAN is seen as vital to India’s Indo-Pacific Vision and to Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR).
On trade and investment, India emphasised the need for regional value chains (RVCs) – a factor that influenced India’s withdrawal from RCEP which was finally launched on 15 November 2020. India now needs to push for a suitable review of the India ASEAN FTA and to secure its vital interests in services using reciprocity appropriately. That may help a more balanced trade regime and facilitate new cross investments in resilient supply chains. The cohesive and responsive ASEAN that PM spoke about must also cover trade and investment issues.
In pursuit of a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific region India looked for an alignment between the 2019 ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, which the PM announced at the same summit last year. The Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative is based on sustainable development goal 14 (SDG 14) and proposes a safe, secure and stable maritime domain. India also brought up the fight against terrorism.
India addressed the challenges in the South China Sea directly and asking for a rules-based order in the region, upholding adherence to international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Despite assertions by many that the South China Sea must be governed by UNCLOS and the freedom of third parties to operate, it is evident that the draft Code of Conduct (COC) which China is negotiating with ASEAN excludes these vital elements and seeks ASEAN concurrence to make China the hegemon of the South China Sea as it has physically become. As ASEAN hedged, it was Chinese PM Li who pushed for an early conclusion of the COC in an effort to bring forward the 2021 timeline! ASEAN is uncomfortable with the direction that the COC is taking and has used the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason to avoid discussion virtually.
With respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, PM Modi announced a contribution of $1 million to the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund. Hopefully, this will form the basis of larger exports of related medicines and medical equipment from India to ASEAN countries.
To support physical and digital connectivity the PM reiterated the offer of a $1 billion line of credit (LOC) which has not been utilised for several years. There does not appear to be a cogent policy pursued for this by Indian companies nor do ASEAN members see this as more attractive than what is offered by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
However, the demands for connectivity are immense and it is best if India uses the partnership with Japan and Australia to create a suitable project, like a strategic port, in ASEAN. It must, however, take into consideration the relatively slow implementation of the U.S.–Japan–Australia Infrastructural Trilateral initiative in the region which reveals the difficulties in undertaking coordinated projects in third countries.
While India stays the course and supports ASEAN Centrality, its patience wearing thin due to lack of appropriate ASEAN responsibility for its own region. ASEAN is struggling to deal with China as well as the growing interest in the Indo Pacific. The Quad is seen as a challenge to ASEANs sentiments as it forces ASEAN to consider dealing with Chinese intrusions more robustly.
There is no doubt that as a group ASEAN is unable to cope with China. Its members have been doing what they can. India is engaging with some of them for ASEAN plus polices. Given internal issues among ASEAN members, calls for restricting the influence of Laos and Cambodia in ASEAN decision making are emerging in non-official channels as they are seen as Chinese allies. The idea of ASEAN minus X nomenclature used in some economic decision making could emerge in ASEANs overall system if the founding countries and Vietnam play a better hand.
Due to COVID-19, countries are redefining their sense of national security. The focus on strategic autonomy with an emphasis on resilient supply chains could be a robust movement. India has steadfastly grown its bilateral engagement with select ASEAN members like Indonesia, Vietnam and most recently Philippines. Cooperation against terrorism and in defence has been initiated more robustly.
As Asia looks for multipolarity, developing relations with individual ASEAN members with matching security concerns is bound to acquire importance for India.
Gurjit Singh is a former Indian Ambassador to Germany. He is currently the Chair of the CII Task Force on the Asia Africa Growth Corridor and Professor at the IIT, Indore.
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