The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) comprises of Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
India and ASEAN are observing 25 years of their Dialogue Partnership, 15 years of Summit Level interaction and 5 years of Strategic Partnership throughout 2017 by undertaking a wide range of activities, both in India and in ASEAN Member States.
In early November 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Phillipines to take part in the 15th India-ASEAN Summit, 12th East Asia Summit.
The series of meetings with the leaders of the Southeast Asian region added thrust to India’s Act East Policy. All the meetings were indicative of growing India’s political, economic and strategic engagement with the ASEAN.
India’s desire to have a multi-faceted relationship with ASEAN is an outcome of the significant changes in the world’s political and economic scenario since the early 1990s and India’s own march towards economic liberalization.
There are four major challenges in India’s engagement with ASEAN. The first being China, second competing interest with ASEAN countries, third connectivity problem with ASEAN and fourth global pressure of getting involved in the region.
Competing interest with ASEAN: The second most challenge for India is the competing interests. India’s economic structure is similar to most of the southeast asian countries; like dominantion of agriculture, cheap human resources, availability of natural resources, etc. Besides, the issues related to patents, labour laws, dumping, converging maritime boundaries, trafficking and terrorist activities are all in common with these nations. As such they may play a spoil sport in forging economic and trade partnerships with India and ASEAN.
Connectivity with ASEAN: The third challenge for India is connectivity with ASEAN. The formidable Himalayas in the North-Eastern States and Myanmar, the narrow zone of Strait of Malacca, geographical setting of land mass and oceans and the inability of small island nations in investing in connectivity projects have been hampering India’s engagement with the region. If India ASEAN engagement has to sustain then connectivity is crucial for forging economic, trade and political engagement and people’s contact.
China Factor: The formidable challenge for India is to balance its relations with China in the Indo-Pacific region. China is, on one hand is the largest trading partner for India, on the other hand it is perceived as a potential security threat against to India. There are unresolved border issues, competition for the resources and markets in Asia, Africa and the South America, encircling strategy of China, disputes over One Belt One Road (OBOR) and the associated CPEC are the major issues in India China relationship. These issues have been testing the strength of the bilateral relations time and again.
Since all the big and small nations in the ASEAN grouping have a deeper economic engagement with China, it is a major challenge for India to deal with China in the Indo pacific region. As such India must resolve its bilateral issues with China in order to play a significant role in the ASEAN region.
Global Pressure: Handing global pressure in forging relationship with ASEAN is another challenge for India. In 2004, the Indian Maritime Doctrine elaborated on the shift in global maritime focus from the Atlantic-Paciﬁc combine to the Indo -Paciﬁc region. On various occasions, India’s vision towards the Indo-Pacific region is exemplified by the growing cooperation with the nations that is beyond ASEAN region.
The quadrilateral talks involving India US, Australia and Japan has wider ramifications. As a as part of its ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, USA has vesed interest to nudge India to play a greater role in the indo pacific region. Similarly Japan and Australia like to involve India to neutralize anti-China overtures.
There for India’s engagement with the ASEAN region have enough of trappings. So India should neither dictate nor get dictated by them while dealing with the ASEAN region.