World Affairs

Balancing relations

Print edition : January 25, 2013

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with wife Gursharan Kaur at the flag-down ceremony of India-ASEAN car rally in New Delhi on December 21. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is also seen. Photo: Vijay Verma/PTI

Admiral D.K. Joshi. He said India was ready to deploy naval vessels in the South China Sea. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. Vietnam has territorial disputes with China. Photo: FINDLAY KEMBER/AFP

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressing at the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit in New Delhi on December 20. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

THE 10th India-ASEAN summit held in New Delhi on December 20-21 was a high-profile event attended by all the heads of state of South-East Asia, barring the Philippines, which was represented by its Vice-President.

India’s relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is today one of the cornerstones of its foreign policy. India’s serious engagement with the ASEAN started in the 1990s with the “Look East” policy under Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. A “dialogue partnership” was established with the grouping in 1992. This engagement was later elevated to the status of annual bilateral summits from 2002. The 2012 Delhi summit, with the theme “ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace and Shared Prosperity”, also marked the 20th anniversary of the establishment of formal relations between India and the regional grouping. The summit was also held against the background of the tensions that have erupted in the region owing to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and some ASEAN member countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines. The issue has created a few noticeable fissures within ASEAN as was evident from what transpired during the recent summit of the grouping in Phnom Penh.

Increasing trade

China, too, had opened a full dialogue partnership with the regional grouping, in 1991. China has been ASEAN’s biggest trading partner for the last three years. In 2011, two-way trade between China and South-East Asia stood at $336 billion. In comparison, India-ASEAN bilateral trade, though growing fast, is comparatively modest, at $70 billion in 2011. South-East Asia has been registering very high growth rates. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his opening speech at the New Delhi summit, said that India and ASEAN countries had a combined population of over 1.8 billion and a combined gross domestic product of $3.8 trillion.

The India-ASEAN free trade agreement (FTA), signed in 2009, was upgraded by agreements in services and investment. The two sides are confident that bilateral trade will reach $100 billion a year by 2015. The dramatic political changes in Myanmar have especially enthused Indian officials. The Indian government is giving a lot of emphasis to the proposed “Trilateral Highway” that would link the north-eastern States of the country by road to Myanmar and Thailand and onward to Cambodia and Laos. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a recent visit to Yangon, said that Washington wanted Myanmar rather than China to be the transport corridor between India and the broader ASEAN region.

India is adopting a cautious policy on the disputes involving China and some of its neighbours in South-East Asia. Top officials say that ASEAN countries have a history of solving disputes through dialogue. They claim that India and China are not rivals in the region and that there is plenty of space for both countries to cooperate and do business in the region.

Strategic ties

India’s “Look East” policy, they point out, incorporates balanced multilateralism. India, along with the U.S., Australia, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia hold meetings with ASEAN leaders regularly at the annual East Asia Summit, which has emerged as an important dialogue forum in the region. Manmohan Singh, however, did state that India-ASEAN relations, although essentially economic, were “also becoming increasingly strategic”.

The Prime Minister emphasised that India and ASEAN countries “should intensify their engagement in maritime security and safety, for freedom of navigation and the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes in accordance with international law”.

India’s deepening bonds with the grouping coincides with the Barack Obama administration’s strategic “pivot to the East”. This move is a barely disguised attempt to strategically encircle China, with the active connivance of Japan and some ASEAN countries. But ASEAN, as a grouping, continues to have very good ties with Beijing.

Attempts by the Philippines to make ASEAN take a stand on the South China Sea dispute at the summit in Phnom Penh did not succeed. Cambodian Foreign Ministry officials said at the time that the grouping had decided “that they would not internationalise the South China Sea [dispute] from now on”. Officials of Vietnam and the Philippines disputed the claims of consensus put forward by the Cambodian hosts and instead accused Phnom Penh of succumbing to Chinese pressure. Other ASEAN member-countries accused Hanoi and Manila of adopting an overly aggressive stance towards Beijing and of trying to push the grouping towards a regional order led by the U.S.

China’s position is that it is willing to resolve the disputes amicably by talking to the countries that have territorial claims in the South China Sea. In 2002, ASEAN and China had agreed to a non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea, which broadly called for the peaceful diplomatic resolution of the disputes. Vietnamese Prime Minister Tan Dung had asked for India’s support for the full implementation of the DOC. Vietnam, along with the Philippines, is of the opinion that Beijing, by stepping up aggressive naval patrolling in 2010, has violated the spirit in which the DOC was signed. The Chinese side blamed Vietnam and the Philippines for making provocative moves in the areas under dispute, by giving out contracts for oil and gas exploration to foreign companies, including Indian ones.


The timing of the statement by Indian Navy chief Admiral D.K. Joshi that India is ready to deploy vessels in the South China Sea to protect its commercial assets and maritime interests has surprised many observers. State-run Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) has signed a contract with Vietnam for hydrocarbon exploration in a disputed part of the South China Sea. At a press conference in early December, Admiral Joshi also said that the modernisation of the Chinese Navy was a “major concern” for India. The Navy chief’s observation came when National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon was in Beijing to hold talks with his Chinese counterpart, Dai Bingguo. The U.S. rebalancing to the East has apparently encouraged Vietnam and the Philippines to toughen their stand on territorial disputes with China.

The Philippines Vice-President, Jejomar C. Binay, who was in India to attend the meet, welcomed the Navy chief’s statement. A Chinese naval commander, Vice-Admiral Su Zhiqian, who was in Sri Lanka at the time, told the media there that the Chinese Navy “would actively maintain the peace and stability of the Indian Ocean”. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid reiterated India’s stand that the maritime boundary issue should be resolved between the countries concerned through dialogue.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman welcomed the further strengthening of ties between India and the regional grouping, saying that both were important partners of Beijing, and expressed the hope that it “would contribute to regional peace, stability and development”.

External Affairs Ministry officials have reportedly conveyed their unhappiness on the Navy chief’s remarks, but at the same time have blamed the media for misinterpreting his views. Defence Minister A.K. Antony has said on several occasions that India wants a negotiated settlement to the territorial dispute between China and its neighbours. Meanwhile, New Delhi is attaching great importance to “freedom of navigation” in the international waterways. China had said that it retained the right to board vessels entering disputed waters. A few Philippine and Vietnamese fishing boats and vessels have been diverted by the Chinese Navy from the disputed islands.

The Indian government, while keen to establish closer military and strategic ties with the U.S., seems reluctant to enter into a formal military or strategic alliance with Washington. With the U.S. military on the verge of leaving Afghanistan, India wants to keep its options open. For instance, it wants to be a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO). For this to become a reality, New Delhi will have to keep Beijing in good humour while getting closer to the West. The two countries are also members of important groupings like BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and RIC (Russia, India and China).

In early 2012, the U.S. Department of Defence had identified India as a long-term security and “strategic partner” in the Asia-Pacific region. Even before the Obama administration’s strategic pivot to the East, the Indian Navy was participating in U.S.-Command led non-traditional security activities such as anti-piracy and disaster relief operations. India also has a trilateral defence agreement with the U.S. and Japan. India is cooperating with ASEAN to combat non-traditional threats such as piracy, terrorism and drug trafficking. The evolving strategic ties between India and some key ASEAN countries will be no doubt keenly watched in Beijing.

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