Updated: November 1, 2021 10:01:01 am
In his engagement with the Asian leaders last week, conducted under the banner of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said all the right things. He reaffirmed India’s commitment to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific, and underlined Delhi’s support for the centrality of the ASEAN. But Asia is changing rapidly and is very different today from the one that India re-engaged in the early 1990s in the name of a Look East Policy. Much of the churn in the region has taken place since Modi won office in 2014. The PM then promised to impart fresh energy to the regional engagement with his “Act East Policy”. Until now Delhi had it easy. It just needed to effectively implement the ASEAN agenda of regional cooperation. But the structural changes in the region and the breakdown of the old certitudes demand that India reboot its ASEAN engagement.
If the ASEAN was widely viewed as a thriving regional organisation just a few years ago, it is struggling to retain its internal coherence today. There have been serious differences on how to deal with the military coup in Myanmar. The rise of China and its assertive policies towards its neighbours deeply trouble the ASEAN. But overwhelmed by China’s proximity and power, few are willing to raise their voice against Beijing. The region is also shaken to its core by the deepening political confrontation between Beijing and Washington and the prospect for an economic decoupling between China and the US.
Squeezed by the sharpening Sino-US rivalry, ASEAN members are ambivalent about the geopolitical conception of the Indo-Pacific. Many of them have bought into Beijing’s narrative that brands the Indo-Pacific as anti-China. They also are wary about India’s membership of the Quad that is viewed as a potential challenge to ASEAN centrality. Delhi has its task cut out in explaining its vision of the Indo-Pacific, reassuring the region on Delhi’s membership of the Quad, and intensifying its own bilateral cooperation with the ASEAN states. Delhi’s withdrawal from the region-wide free trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in 2019, continues to rankle among the ASEAN members. Linked to the RCEP is the widespread regional perception that India has turned inward again with its “Aatmanirbhar” policies. There is little regional awareness of India’s recent economic reforms promoting greater role for domestic and foreign capital. Delhi can’t assume that the logic of its new international posture is self-evident to its ASEAN partners. It needs a comprehensive effort to promote a better Asian understanding of its policies and the new opportunities they present for deeper economic and political cooperation.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on November 1, 2021 under the title ‘Looking east’.