Future of Asia, Global Pairings

Balancing Asia: India Is Late to the Game

India sees the Belt and Road Initiative as an attempt to clip India’s own wings and build a China-centric world order.

Credit: fzd.it/Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • India sees the Belt and Road Initiative as an attempt to clip India’s own wings and build a China-centric world order.
  • The Belt and Road Initiative spans 70 countries. It is designed to see that all roads lead to Beijing, just as 2,000 years ago all roads led to Rome.
  • That the leaders of all 10 ASEAN countries attended India’s 69th Republic Day celebrations demonstrates that ASEAN nations are keen to avoid putting all their eggs in the China basket.
  • With its growing stature in the region, India is loath to accept Chinese domination in its own neighborhood.
  • India alone in Asia has the size, demographics, economic potential, military capability and civilizational depth to act as a countervailing force to China’s hegemony.

Finally, India has sent a belated signal to assert a commitment to Southeast Asia. Both India and the Southeast Asian nations are looking for a strategic counterweight to Beijing.

The leaders of all 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) paraded through New Delhi this past weekend as guests for India’s 69th Republic Day celebrations.

The procession of dignitaries is an indication that ASEAN nations are keen to avoid putting all their eggs in the China basket.

Republic Day spectacle

The high-wattage presence of the heads of government from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei marks a break from tradition for India.

The country usually invites just one chief guest for the fest. As Prime Minister Modi declared in a radio address: “This time, not one but 10 chief guests will grace the Republic Day. This is unprecedented in India’s history.”

While the celebration is largely symbolic, it does demonstrate that ASEAN is interested in balancing the growing influence of China, which is pursuing its vast “Belt and Road” infrastructure scheme to tie the region together.

As it stands, the Indo-Pacific concept outlined earlier by former U.S. President Barack Obama is gaining traction.

India is late to the game

Even so, India is late to the game. The BRI, as China’s initiative is known, was put into place five years ago. It spans 70 countries and offers the potential for Chinese investment of $4 trillion – albeit at often near-usurious lending rates. It is designed to see that all roads lead to Beijing, just as 2,000 years ago all roads led to Rome.

India’s ambitions are far more modest. Tiny Bhutan remains India’s biggest recipient of foreign aid, followed at a distance by Afghanistan.

The two-day India-ASEAN “Commemorative” Summit in truth celebrated 25 years of a partnership that has mostly been notable for its nonexistence.

To make amends, the summit focused on boosting cooperation in the key areas of counter-terrorism, security and connectivity to counter Beijing’s economic and military assertiveness. The group has agreed to set up a mechanism on maritime cooperation to counter the common “traditional” and “non-traditional” challenges they face.

China’s watchful eye

Expectedly, the event was closely watched by Beijing. Its foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters wryly that “China is open to all countries developing friendly relations. So, we’re okay with India developing friendly and cooperative relations with ASEAN countries.”

It helps India’s cause that it has gained respect among ASEAN member nations after it stayed away from Beijing’s belt and road initiative despite Chinese attempts at persuasion.

Delhi believes BRI is an attempt to clip India’s own wings and build a China-centric world order. With its growing stature in the region, India is loath to accept Chinese domination in its own neighborhood.

China has been expanding its presence in South Asia, building ports and power plants in countries around India’s periphery including Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

India has countered this by beefing up its infrastructure and standing up to China’s incursions along its north-eastern borders, and quietly in Afghanistan.

New Delhi is also liaising with Washington and Tokyo who view India as a bulwark against China as U.S. influence has waned. The newly formed Quadrilateral comprising India, Japan, Australia and the United States aims to achieve just that.

With many of the ASEAN members locked in maritime disputes with Beijing, critics say, the former are relying on broadening their linkages with countries such as India. The latter alone in Asia has the size, demographics, economic potential, military capability and civilizational depth to act as a countervailing force to China’s hegemony.

ASEAN’s vision of peace and prosperity

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose country Singapore currently chairs ASEAN, said the grouping believes that “India makes a major contribution to regional affairs, helping to keep the regional architecture open, balanced and inclusive.”

There are many areas of convergence between India and ASEAN member states. At the summit, Modi emphasized that India shares ASEAN’s vision for rules-based societies and peace.

“Freedom of navigation will be a key focus of India-ASEAN in the maritime domain,” he said. “India shares ASEAN’s vision of peace and prosperity through a rules-based order for the oceans and seas. Respect for international law, notably UNCLOS is critical for this. We remain committed to work with ASEAN to enhance practical cooperation and collaboration in our shared maritime domain.”

As Kanti Bajpai writes in his column for The Times of India,

India has quietly gone about building diplomatic and even military links with virtually every country in ASEAN. Delhi has strategic dialogues with the major states in Southeast Asia and holds military exercises. It makes port calls. It trains personnel and repairs equipment. It sells arms and provides military credits to some. It likely shares intelligence too with select partners. During the 2004 tsunami, the Indian navy sailed to the rescue, along with American, Australian and Japanese navies.

It is true that India has already been pursuing an “Act East” policy of developing political and economic linkages with Southeast Asia. However, India’s efforts lack the zeal and ambitiousness of China.

Just consider that China’s trade with ASEAN was more than six times India’s in 2016-17. While China-ASEAN trade accounts for 15.2 percent of the block’s total trade, its trade with India only constitutes 2.6 percent.

Thus, while the pomp and show of India’s Republic Day always make for good optics, it is just that – optics. Matching up to Beijing’s clout and winning influence in the region will need some serious efforts on India’s part. It is only starting and there is a long way to go.

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About Philip Bowring

Philip Bowring is an Asia-based journalist, formerly the editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and columnist for the International Herald Tribune.

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