India’s annual summit meetings with the Asean countries began 15 years ago, though inviting all 10 members to our Republic Day celebrations as chief guests is a novel idea. The summit meeting is on Thursday, followed by the spectacle of possibly all 10 joining Indian dignitaries at the reviewing stand for the Republic Day parade on New Delhi’s Rajpath on Friday.
The Asean bloc was founded by five countries in 1967 — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. These were mostly US allies or partners and India, with the Vietnam War still raging, avoided the group as it conflicted with India’s non-alignment principles. India’s engagement really began after the Cold War ended in 1992. It was raised to the summit level in 2002, and eventually a “strategic partnership” in 2012.
Asean remains the core of other structures for Asian security and economic integration. The premier Asian security dialogue is the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), consisting of Asean’s 10 members plus 17 others, including Australia, China, India, Japan, Canada, the European Union, Russia and, of course, the United States. The Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) consists of the 10 plus China, Japan and South Korea, besides Australia, India, New Zealand, Russia and the US. This is the highest defence consultative and cooperative mechanism. These Asean spin-offs have created a rudimentary Asian security paradigm. The East Asia Summit, created in 2005, replicates the ADMM membership. Its ambitious vision is for durable peace and shared prosperity through tapping new economic flows and strategic interactions.
As these processes were under way, China’s rise and its unilateral seizure of maritime domains in the South and East China Seas caused fear and fissures in Asean. China refuses to engage the group on sovereignty issues or accept as binding the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. US President Barack Obama had, meanwhile, announced a new criteria-based group called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with 12 members, including Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore from Asean. It appeared to isolate China, which argued instead for the formalising of 10 plus six as a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The US proposal stayed stranded in the US Senate. Then President Donald Trump assumed office and in keeping with his electoral rhetoric withdrew the US from the TPP. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced at the World Economic Forum earlier this week the actual launch of the TPP minus the US in Tokyo, which the Japanese had been advocating. Thus, as the India-Asean summit is held and the Republic Day pageant begins in New Delhi, three Asean members have one foot in another boat. The Asia-Pacific Economic Partnership (Apec), an existing though laidback grouping, may be further marginalised by the TPP.
Hence, the Indo-Pacific region has an overcrowding of groups. They can either be building blocks of a new Asian security and economic order or raise new walls. The issue before the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos this year is whether the old post-World War II trade and financial order can survive. Almost each developed nation has seen the rise of anti-globalisation political forces as globalisation’s benefits appear largely accruing to the richest. The rise of Germany and China as export behemoths, building huge trade surpluses and literally de-industrialising less competitive developed and developing nations, has led to the rise of nativist and de-globalisation politicians. Therefore, ironically, as the WEF awaits President Trump — the arch disruptor — to address it, the basic question remained unaddressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his keynote speech at Davos on Tuesday, on how to reform globalisation. Mr Modi merely sought its perpetuation as an Oxfam report on India, released on the eve of his address, revealed that 73 per cent of economic benefits in 2017 had gone to the top one per cent of Indians, many of them seated amongst his august audience. This is even more skewed than the global trend.
Therefore, India is now wooing the Asean membership, hoping that their desire to balance China provides an opening. With a 650 million population and its GDP crossing $2.8 trillion, Asean is a vital partner for trade and investment. India’s two-way trade of $70 billion in 2016-17 is dwarfed by China’s $346 billion, Japan’s $239 billion, the EU’s $228 billion, with the US ranked fourth at $212 billion. Asean is also an extremely economically variegated region, with Singapore’s per capita income at $53,000 and a mere $1,300 for Cambodia. Culturally too, Islam and Buddhism, besides some Chinese belief systems, would divide it almost half and half. Islamic radicalisation affects the southern fringes of Thailand and the Philippines. India has an old religo-cultural link that binds the region to it. However, ultimately if India has to posit a competing model to China’s, it has to be of an open, inclusive and tolerant democracy, respecting and propagating human rights. The BJP’s fringe was intimidating cinema goers even in his home state as Mr Modi preached those values at Davos.
The resurrection of the “Quadrilateral” — a grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the United States — sends a signal of the need to hold hands to balance China. US security doctrine now treats the Indo-Pacific as one seamless theatre. India cannot but start seeking closer security and defence ties with the Asean nations to balance Chinese pressure on their legitimate maritime domains. While the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is already laying a hub-and-spoke map of land and sea connectivity, hopefully not followed by military bases and alliances, India has two projects. One is the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway, which is under construction. The other is the Kaladan Multi-Modal Project to improve India’s access to its own isolated Northeastern states via Myanmar. India would have to be far more ambitious than that to counter China. But as it climbs some old walls, new ones keep rising. Like Sisyphus, India has to start rolling the rock back up the hill this Republic Day.