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Asean eyes India as 'soft balancer'
Publication Date : 11-03-2013
With the US' new top diplomat John Kerry casting doubts on his country's pivot to Asia in both words and action, and with the superpower's deep defence cuts, it is unsurprising that South-east Asian nations are biting their nails over its staying power in the region - and looking for alternatives.
This nervousness was all too clear at the recent Delhi Dialogue, an annual forum for diplomats, academics and the business community from India and Asean.
The Asean participants were urging deeper Indian engagement with the 10-nation grouping - based on a strategic partnership the two sides agreed on last December - across a broad range of areas, from people-to-people exchange to trade to security.
Diplomats who spoke on the first day were circumspect, dwelling more on bilateral cooperation.
It was left to the academics on the second day to name the elephant - or dragon - in the room, China, and its growing assertiveness that has got its smaller, weaker neighbours worried. These states are concerned that, with the United States' ability to sustain its pivot uncertain, there is a need to draw in other powers to hedge against China's assertive tendencies.
Almost to a man, speakers at the session on Asean-India security cooperation raised the common strategic concern of the two sides over China's economic and security rise, and what they might do together to address this challenge.
Putting it baldly, University of Indonesia's Dr Evi Fitriani said India and Asean "share similar concerns because of some of the security problems created by China".
But the Asean speakers were quick to note that in drawing in India, China should not be pushed out. Its deepening Asean engagement has hugely benefited the bloc economically. In recent years, simmering territorial disputes between some Asean states and China have come to the fore, together with the perception that China is increasingly assertive in its claims.
Said Dr Fitriani: "We cannot just leave behind China, it is important to create a positive sum game in the relationship of China, India and Asean."
As the Philippines' Professor Rommel Banlaoi quipped: "Asean doesn't want to be torn between two lovers."
What Asean looks for in India is a "soft balancer", a term much bandied about at the session.
So unlike the US pivot, which has a strong military element, India's role would be to add its heft to the region through its participation in the region's security structures and deepening its economic and other ties.
Such soft balancing would not preclude a strategic defence dialogue with Japan or holding joint naval exercises with Asean countries.
However, the sense among Asean members is that there has been a lot of talk but little concrete action in bilateral cooperation. Prof Banlaoi said "actual collaboration on regional security matters is still wanting".
While Asean's trade with China last year hit US$362.8 billion, he pointed out that trade between Asean and India for the same year was a paltry US$70 billion by comparison.
Clearly, to Asean, a lot needs to be done to ramp up ties between the grouping and India.
But what does New Delhi think of the clamour for it to wade deeper into Southeast Asia as a hedge against Beijing?
Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said ties with Asean are one of Delhi's foreign policy cornerstones. However, his country does not subscribe to "any thesis of containment of any power" or balance of power.
"We believe in true and honest and transparent engagement," he told a meeting of Asean journalists (including this correspondent) on an exchange programme in India that coincided with the Delhi forum. He added that India had its own style of reaching out to the world, based on Jawaharlal Nehru's vision of "non-alignment".
India's own relationship with China - in which cooperation and competition go hand in hand - also constrains its engagement with the region. Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) director-general Arvind Gupta explained: "India has its own independent relationship with China… the Indian position would be that it would like to improve relations with the US and China, but without becoming a part of any China-containment policy."
That said, Asean is too important to India to see it "go up in flames" on disputes like those in the South China Sea, said IDSA deputy head Rumel Dahiya.
But with a long-term border dispute with China yet to be resolved, the last thing Delhi wants is a direct confrontation with Beijing in Southeast Asia.
For now, India is happy to play the role of soft balancer. But as its trade links and other interests in the region grow - it has contracts with Vietnam to explore for oil off the latter's shores in disputed zones - it is inevitable that it will come up against China's interests in the region.
Will geopolitical realities put paid to the Indian model of principled engagement in the region? Will Asean find itself torn between two lovers?