ASEAN needs India to preserve its centrality in a multi-polar Indo-Pacific
Commodore Somen Banerjee, Senior Fellow, VIF

A workshop of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Regional Forum (ARF) was concluded in Dili, Timor-Leste on April 26, 2019. A range of issues would have been on the table including the Rohingya refugee crisis, radicalisation and the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. But, the most pressing matter that confronts ASEAN today is the changing power dynamics in East and South Asia, and the trepidations about losing its centrality in the changing world order.

Idea of Indo-Pacific

In August 2007, Indo-Pacific was floated as an idea by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for stitching the Indian and Pacific Oceans into one strategic continuum. The primary intention was to manage China’s rise. Instinctively, it also revived the historical ties between the Indian sub-continent and the Western Pacific. Within a decade of its inception, the concept got reconciled to its normative landscape, characterised by economic and social interactions between its people. In some ways, India can be credited for resetting this narrative. Prime Minister Modi’s keynote address at Shangri-La dialogue in June 2018, managed to arrest the unbridled drift of the Indo-Pacific into the strategic domain, premised on great power competition. He succeeded in reorienting the discourse by anchoring it back on the civilisational links that has existed between states of this region for over two millennium.

India-ASEAN Relations

India has had a benign influence on the ASEAN region. They have remained ever connected through trade and cultural exchanges. Consequently, five out of 10 ASEAN countries have Buddhist majority today. ASEAN also has a sizable Hindu population and archeological treasures from the yesteryears. India is the source of syncretic Islam, which is the dominant religion in three ASEAN states. India’s engagement of over 2000 years with Southeast Asia has been devoid of strategic elements, with the exception of brief conflict between the Cholas of India and the Srivijaya Empire of Southeast Asia in the eleventh century CE. Indian soldiers deployed by the British Army during the early nineteenth century was an unfortunate compunction of history that had left a bitter taste amongst the ASEAN nations. India’s association with the Soviet Union and recognition of Heng Samrin regime of Kampuchea in the 1980s also contributed to the souring of the relations. Notwithstanding these minor dissentions, the bonds of amity between ASEAN and India have been strong and have got reinforced by the eons of history. But political memories are short. So, leaders of ASEAN and India have had to painstakingly build these relations post-independence. These have now been deepened by upgrading India as ASEAN’s strategic partner and through India’s Look East and Act East policies.

What is ASEAN Centrality?

The ASEAN community is built on three pillars of political-security, socio-cultural and economics. The Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) between them is based on multilateralism and constitutes peaceful coexistence, non-interference, peaceful resolution of disputes, and renunciation of use of force. ASEAN has managed to act in concert on all regional economic and diplomatic policies. As a result, it has achieved considerable legitimacy in the international fora. ASEAN centrality is an element of its political-security framework and is a strategy for external engagements. ASEAN aspires to play a pivotal role in all regional and international fora. It achieves this by retaining the initiative for policies concerning its region. So, all issues relating to its regional security are steered under ASEAN led frameworks such as ASEAN plus Three, East Asia Summit (EAS) and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Interestingly, both India and China also have acceded to TAC.

China is Unraveling ASEAN Centrality?

ASEAN’s record of handling security issues have not been satisfactory, primarily attributable to Chinese assertions. It turned its gaze on the external dimensions of security after the announcement of Guam Doctrine in 1969, which led to major great power realignment between the US and China in Indochina. ASEAN responded to the major overhaul in power balance by declaring Southeast Asia as Zone of Peace Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in November 1971, primarily to deny China stakes in the region. But this did not stop China from imposing its unilateral claims in the SCS. In 1974 China took over the Paracel islands from South Vietnam. Ever since there have been a multitude of incidents where China has defied the norms of TAC. ARF came into being in 1994 after China passed a controversial law in February 1992 which declared the entire SCS as China's internal waters. After China occupied the Mischief Reef off Philippines in 1995, ASEAN endorsed the idea of code of conduct in July 1996. In other words, despite the incremental measures, ASEAN has not been able to contain China’s irredentism. Ruptures in ASEAN unity came to fore when Cambodia blocked the issuing of a joint statement in 2012 against Chinese actions in the SCS. Despite Philippine’s victory in the judgement of Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, she had to withdraw her communique against China during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting held in July 2016, to avoid embarrassment by Cambodia. Thus, China has been successful in unraveling ASEAN centrality.

Shelf-life of ASEAN Centrality

There is trouble brewing between the ASEAN nations too. The clashes between Vietnam Coast Guard and Indonesian Navy on April 28, 2019 over fishermen in SCS are bringing the divisions within ASEAN more openly. Whether Vietnam broke the code of TAC on its own or was it instigated by China is a matter of conjecture. Indonesia’s announcement that it will sink 51 fishing boats (mostly Vietnamese) in May 2019 has further flared up the situation within the ASEAN countries. These developments clearly put a serious question mark on the shelf-life of ASEAN centrality.

Multi-polar vs Multilateral World Order

During the Cold War, Indo-Pacific has been a region of ideological tug-of-war between the erstwhile Soviet Union and the US. China played its part by instigating communist insurgency and supporting genocidal regimes like Pol Pot. Post-Cold War, the tug-of-war has been between multilateral and multipolar world order. China has witnessed rapid economic growth, which has manifested in the militarisation of the region. In response to Chinese assertiveness, the Quadrilateral (QUAD) Grouping has emerged as an incipient multi-polar system in East Asia. In this backdrop ASEAN centrality based on a multilateral world order will become increasingly unsustainable. Hence, ASEAN will require the support of other great powers for legitimacy and for retaining a say for its own security order. Mao Zedong had once said that ‘we must have Southeast Asia, including South Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and Singapore. After we get the region, the wind from the East will prevail over the wind from the West’. Then Mao did not have the economic or military muscle to achieve his dream. But, now China’s capabilities appear to be commensurate with its dreams. Hence, China doesn’t have an incentive to protect ASEAN centrality.

Lee Kuan Yew had suggested to the Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1965 to go nuclear after the Chinese Nuclear explosion. He believed that ‘only India could look China in the eye’. He had further reiterated that ‘fear of China will grow with the growth of Chinese economy. So, ASEAN will always value strategic presence of India’. Traditionally, India has been opposed to great power intervention and military alliances in the Indo-Pacific Region. India has also discouraged the concept of filling-power-vacuum. Going by its traditional links with ASEAN, India will be naturally inclined to support ASEAN centrality. Indian leaders have stated that on number of occasions. Even though a multipolar world would fulfil India’s interests, India would always support a multilateral order for diffusing great power competition. Hence, India is ASEAN’s best bet for preserving its centrality in the Indo-Pacific.

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