For the past 15 years, China has loomed large in the evolution of Asean-India ties.
India and China are competing to ensure their strong footholds in the new strategic horizons with Asean as the core. A free and open Indo-Pacific region, which has been promoted by the Donald Trump administration in the past few months, has dramatically upped the ante and sharpened their focus and engagement with the group.
It remains to be seen what will be the outcome of this intensified engagement - whether it will further strengthen Asean's profile in the regional scheme of things or further drive a wedge among its members.
The 10 Asean leaders were in New Delhi this week to attend the Republic Day parade yesterday marking the 25th anniversary of their partnership. On Thursday, they held a summit to discuss their future pathway, including maritime security.
To understand the nature of the Asean-India dynamic, one has to recall what transpired in the recent past. In the spring of 2003, a senior Indian diplomat based in Bangkok alerted New Delhi that China would become the first major power to accede to the 1976 Asean Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) the following autumn. It was imperative, she said, that India contemplate the same action without delay.
Amazingly, New Delhi did. In Bali, both India and China acceded to the TAC on the same day, which automatically turned their relationship into a strategic partnership.
The treaty's accession by any major power is considered the most important confidence-building step with Asean.
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It was only in 1992 that Asean had the confidence to invite global powers, especially members of the UN Security Council, to sign the TAC. The grouping has been ambitious to push its regional code of conduct to the global level. The US, under the Clinton administration, was the first country Asean approached, but it quickly declined.
When China and India signed the TAC, Asean leaders hoped that its key dialogue partners Japan and South Korea would join at the same time. But Tokyo and Seoul were reluctant, waiting for a positive signal from Washington, which believed that such a move would weaken its alliance in Asia.
After a 17-year delay, the US finally acceded to the treaty in 2009.
A few weeks later, as a face-saving gesture, then Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda, as the Asean chair, flew to Tokyo to issue a declaration with Japan stating that Asean had accepted Japan's accession to the treaty, and, in July 2004, Japan became the third non-Asean member to sign.
This week's events provide PM Modi with a unique chance to make a difference in the India-Asean relations at the personal level. While the bilateral cooperation has progressed in all fields, it still lacks the kind of spontaneity and dynamism one finds in more encompassing Asean-China ties. China has 48 sectoral committees that cover the whole gamut of cooperation, in comparison to India's 30.
India's signing of the TAC was the most pivotal and timely decision in the annals of Asean-India relations. It prompted Asean to take India more seriously and served as a strong signal that the group had overcome the rift in relations caused by New Delhi's recognition of the Heng Samrin regime during the Cambodian conflict. From that moment on, Asean began to look to India as a genuine countervailing force against China and a possible new Asian economic power, with its marketplace of more than 1.4 billion people. In 2005, Singapore's then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong aptly described India and China as two huge wings that carry the Asean fuselage in the region's economic transformation.
During recent visits to key Asean members, Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj reaffirmed India-Asean cooperation to achieve a shared prosperity and peace.
She also pointed out that India has a large diaspora in the region which links the past and future of their relations. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has become more confident and assertive in highlighting the non-commercial aspect of its shared values and cultural heritage with Asean.
This week's events provide PM Modi with a unique chance to make a difference in the India-Asean relations at the personal level. Frankly speaking, while the bilateral cooperation has progressed in all fields, it still lacks the kind of spontaneity and dynamism one finds in more encompassing Asean-China ties. China has 48 sectoral committees that cover the whole gamut of cooperation, in comparison to India's 30.
Obviously, India would not be able to match China as far as relations with Asean are concerned in terms of project proposals and financial commitments, but India has PM Modi, who has already established close personal ties with the Asean leaders.
Notably, PM Modi and Asean chair Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have the right chemistry and feel at ease with one another. Otherwise, the Asean leaders would not have accepted the invitation to join the Republic Day parade together, a first in its history.
The special celebration of Republic Day gives PM Modi an occasion to display and further cement the camaraderie between him and Asean leaders. His can-do attitude has special appeal to Asean; and his stylish appearance in a khadi kurta engender an air of friendliness and congeniality. Through such rapport among Indian and Asean leaders, an extremely strong level of trust will be established - a necessary prerequisite for deepening strategic relations.
The Delhi Declaration of Shared Values and Common Destiny, released at the end of their summit, serves as testimony of their fresher and stronger cooperation.
When China signed the TAC, it clearly stated that Asean-China ties would be non-aligned, non-military and non-exclusive, which do not prevent their partners from further cooperation with others.
Fifteen years have elapsed since the TAC signing, which China hopes will further increase their mutual confidence and result in Asean endorsing its Treaty of Friendship and Good Neighbourliness, put forward in 2013. So far, only Cambodia has given its full support, while other members have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, pending the outcome of talks on a code of conduct in the South China Sea.
In the case of India, the scope of strategic engagement with Asean under the new Indo-Pacific framework will be broader, with additional areas of cooperation in fighting radicalisation, extremism as well as strengthening cyber security and maritime security.
To further boost India-Asean ties, New Delhi has to rid itself of widely perceived protectionist tendencies that have been manifested during the long-running negotiations for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). If it is successfully concluded later this year, the new regional free trade block will be one of the world's free trade areas and propel India as the top investor and trader with Asean.
At this juncture, all efforts must be expended to ensure that the much-delayed trilateral highway linking North-eastern India with Myanmar and the western provinces of Thailand becomes operational as soon as possible.
India and Thailand must intensify its cooperation with Myanmar to complete the missing link inside its territory. It will serve as a showcase of the Modi government to link up with the connectivity masterplan of Asean and beyond.
Asean has very high expectations of seeing India playing a leading role in bolstering economic growth and regional architecture, but the litmus test lies with New Delhi and its bureaucrats.
• The author, a veteran journalist, is senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Thailand.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2018, with the headline 'China's effect on Asean-India ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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