The consequences of the unfolding conflict between the US and China — the world’s most important economic and military powers — may look somewhat abstract at this moment in Delhi. But coping with the Sino-US confrontation is an existential question for the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). No region in the world is so badly caught in the crossfire between Washington and Beijing, thanks to South East Asia’s profound interdependence with both America and China. The US has been the ASEAN’s leading economic partner for decades. It is also the principal provider of security to a region that has seen an extended period of stability. A rising China, however, has begun to eclipse American commercial domination and challenge US military primacy in the region.
Last week’s meetings of the ARF — the regional forum of the ASEAN that brings together all the major powers to promote peace and prosperity in the region — in Singapore underline the region’s continuing struggle to deal with the challenges. The ASEAN expects India to provide a measure of economic ballast and strategic balance in these difficult circumstances. India has its task cut out on both fronts. As the trade war between America and China escalates, the ASEAN has put special emphasis on accelerating trade liberalisation through the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement under negotiation for many years. Although India has formally committed to bringing the RCEP talks to a close, many issues remain to be resolved between India and the ASEAN. Unless there is highest-level political intervention in Delhi, India is in the danger of being left out of what promises to be one of the biggest trading blocks of the world.
As the US mounts pressure on China through its new Indo-Pacific strategy, a more active naval posture in South China Sea, and nearly US$300 million in new security assistance to the region, Beijing is showing a little more flexibility in its maritime territorial disputes with the ASEAN neighbours. After nearly two decades of talking about a code of conduct in the South China Sea, ASEAN and China have agreed to start negotiations on the basis of a common draft text. An actual agreement might take years, but China is winning some diplomatic brownie points. China has also conducted its first-ever joint maritime exercise with the 10 ASEAN countries last week in Singapore. China’s arms sales to the region continue to rise. India has a longer tradition of defence and security cooperation with the ASEAN than China. Despite the Modi government’s tall talk on “Acting East”, the gap between Delhi’s promise and delivery remains large. Plugging that gap must be a high priority for the current government and its successor in Delhi.