Recent Developments and Trends in South East Asia-An Update
Brig Vinod Anand, Senior Fellow, VIF

In the intertwined world of today it is axiomatic the developments at the international level will have impact on regional responses and outcomes. The year 2023 saw recovery of the SE Asian nations from the impact of Covid-19 and resultant improvement in the growth prospects of their economies. At the geopolitical the ASEAN region saw intensification of strategic competition between China and the US which is playing itself out in the rising incidents of China displaying its belligerence in the South China Sea especially against the claimant countries and specifically the Philippines. The ASEAN has also been unable to find a way out so far on finalizing a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea with China because of China’s truculence and its ambitions of restricting the access of outside powers to the SCS.

While the ASEAN through its annual summits with powers like the US, China, India, Japan and Australia have attempted to bring a modicum of stability and balance due to rising tensions because of China’s assertive behaviour, not much seems to have been achieved. China’s growing economic and military heft has continued to influence the behaviour of SE Asian countries. It is also evident that the ASEAN countries would like to avoid taking sides of either the US or China in case of a hot conflict. On the other hand, both China and the US have been quite careful themselves in escalating hostilities as was evidenced during China’s Coast Guard’s offensive actions around a submerged ship in the Philippines’ Second Thomas Shoal in the preceding year or so. China has also not been happy with the Philippines’ growth of strategic and military relationship with the US especially so after Marcos Jr. came to power as President last year as also with his strong stance against China. Beijing has been seeking to advance its interests through hobnobbing with the erstwhile Philippines’s president Rodrigo Duterte who continues to be pro-China.

ASEAN’s attempts to find a solution to the Myanmar crisis as per its Five Point Consensus have not been able to make much headway. While Malaysia and Indonesia favour a tough stance against the military junta other countries like Thailand and Laos favour engagement with the Myanmar military. Thus, different approaches to the Myanmar issue reflect adversely on the ASEAN unity. It is also quite evident that China’s overwhelming influence on countries like Laos and Cambodia (as also on Myanmar) has impacted the often-claimed centrality of ASEAN in the regional decision-making.

Though during the end of the last year, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers on 30 Dec 2023 the Joint Statement stressed on “the importance of the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and for the early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS”. The statement reflected a degree of solidarity and unity in raising concerns about China’s activities in the SCS though without naming it as such. Apparently, this was first such statement coming out of the ASEAN after a long time. However, again on 29 January 2024, Chair of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Lao PDR articulated similar views of the ASEAN.

India on its part has also clearly supported the PCA award of July 2016 during the visit of the Philippines Secretary for Foreign Affairs to India in June 2023 for the fifth Joint Commission on bilateral cooperation. PM Modi also attended the 20th ASEAN-India Summit in Jakarta in Sept 2023 where he presented a 12-point proposal for enhancing ASEAN-India cooperation in areas of connectivity, establishing SE Asia-India-West Asia corridor, sharing of India’s Digital Public Infrastructure Stack, funding for digital transformation, invitation for joining Global Centre for Traditional Medicine among many other proposals. However, it is up to India as to how much substance can it impart to the proposals or programme which need funding. India also needs to encourage SE Asian countries to join some of the Indian initiatives like India’s Indo Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI), International Solar Alliance (ISA) and Global Fuel Alliance initiative.

The developments in the SE Asian countries especially in Myanmar continue to be viewed with concern by India because of influx of migrants from Myanmar to Indian states of Manipur and Mizoram as also rise in smuggling of drugs and arms. The unsettled conditions in Myanmar also cast a shadow on India’s connectivity projects to Myanmar and beyond as also on realizing objectives of India’s Act East Policy. However, India’s defence diplomacy with ASEAN countries continued to receive traction with countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam besides Philippines showing interest in purchase of defence equipment and weapon platforms from India. There is also a possibility of Manila airport being developed by an Indian infrastructure company. It was also for the first time when an Indian submarine docked at Jakarta, Indonesia in Feb. 2023 using Sunda Strait. Further, for the first time an Indian-ASEAN Maritime exercise was conducted in May 2023 in the SCS indicating the expanding defence cooperation with the SE Asian countries. Additionally, Milan series of Indian Naval exercises which are held biennially have seen participation from most of the ASEAN countries in the latest edition of the joint exercises held in February 2024.

Considering that Vietnam is an important pillar of India’s Act East Policy, India’s External Affairs Minister Dr Jaishankar visited Vietnam as also Singapore in Oct 2023 to review strategic partnership and explore avenues for further cooperation. He also co-chaired the meeting of India-Vietnam Joint Commission on Economic, Trade, Scientific, and Technological Cooperation with Vietnam’s Foreign Minister. However, it needs to be noted that during last year both President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping visited Vietnam underlining not only the strategic importance of Vietnam but also Hanoi’s attempt at carefully balancing its relationship both the powers. The US-Vietnam relationship was upgraded to Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with both sides keen to enhance their military relationship but it may not go very far because of Hanoi’s relationship with Beijing. Whereas during Xi’s trip the party-to-party relationship was emphasized to underline the common ideological underpinnings based on communism. There were a number of agreements signed but China’s formulation of ‘shared destiny’ was reflected as ‘shared future’ indicating a degree of dissonance with Beijing’s recipe.

Further, the India’s ASEAN Plan of Action 2021-2025 needs a thorough review as many of its objectives and deliverables have not been achieved due to various constraints besides disruptions due to Covid-19. The FTA review with the ASEAN which is underway also needs to be done with due diligence keeping our own competencies or lack thereof in mind. It is quite evident that we need to enhance our competitive edge vis a vis SE Asian country in manufacturing and becoming important cog in the global supply chains.

In addition, the India’s ASEAN Plan of Action 2021-2025 needs a thorough review as many of its objectives and deliverables have not been achieved due to various constraints besides disruptions due to Covid-19. The FTA review with the ASEAN which is underway also needs to be done with due diligence keeping our own competencies or lack thereof in mind. It is quite evident that we need to enhance our competitive edge vis a vis SE Asian economy in manufacturing and become an important cog in the global supply chains.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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