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ASEAN & Beyond: India’s growing engagement with Indo-Pacific Region

Recently, India hosted the leaders of the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for two-day ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit in New Delhi. The two-day summit, which commemorates the 25th Anniversary of ASEAN-India dialogue relations, saw the highest level of participation by delegates. Besides the summit, the leaders of ten ASEAN nations participated in the 69th Republic Day celebrations as chief guests.

Previously, 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 first meeting of the India-USA-Japan-Australia Quadrilateral and the first RCEP Summit. The series of meetings with the leaders of the region added thrust to India’s Act East Policy and is an indicative of growing India’s political, economic and strategic engagement with the Indo-Pacific Nations.

It is against this backdrop, it is pertinent to discuss the relevance of the Indo-Pacific Region for India and the challenges ahead for India in the region.

Relevance of the Indo-Pacific Region for India

Pacific Century: The 21st Century is described as the Pacific Century and more specifically the Asia-Pacific Century to denote the significant role the rich and powerful nations in the region are going to play in the global polity, trade and strategic realms in the coming decades. Though the ‘Indo-Pacific’ is different from the ‘Asia-Pacific’ region, China, Japan, Singapore, the USA, South Korea, Australia and Canada fulfill the definitional criteria of the both the regions. Keeping in view the financial and military strength of these democratic nations, it is obvious for India to join hands with them and build partnerships.

Blue Economy: Oceans already account for significant economic activities like shipping, natural resources mining, fishing and tourism. In the recent years, Oceans have become the centres of new industries such as aquaculture, marine biotechnology, ocean energy and sea-bed mining that have the potential to create jobs and spur worldwide economic growth. To exploit these resources in a sustainable manner in the world’s largest (Pacific) and the world’s third largest oceans (Indian Ocean), an inclusive framework for international partnerships is necessary. As India has the Indian Ocean in her backyard and the Pacific Ocean in her extended neighbourhood, the country must take active participation in the regional consultation process to realize the full potential of Ocean-based Blue Economy.

China Factor: Undoubtedly, China is set to overthrow the USA from the pedestal of global economic superpower in the coming decades. Besides, the growing territorial and maritime ambitions of China, which are evident from incidents in South China Sea and Doklam, are expected to pose challenges to India. Hence, it is in the best interest of India to forge an alliance with countries in the region that perceive China as a competitor. Engaging the USA and Japan in annual Malabar Naval Exercise and Australia in the Quad Partnership, which perceive China with a pinch of suspicion,  explain the rationale behind India’s growing engagement with the Indo-Pacific Region.

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Avenues of partnerships

ASEAN: The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) comprises of Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. 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.

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. They would culminate in a Commemorative Summit on the theme "Shared Values, Common Destiny.” The summit will be attended by the leaders of the ASEAN and will coincide the Republic Day celebrations in January 2018 in New Delhi.

East Asia Summit: India is a member of 18-member the East Asia Summit (EAS) grouping that involves prominent nations of the region such as – Australia, Brunei, China, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, the USA, etc. from the Eurasian and the Americas. Though the ASEAN is at the core of the EAS, it’s vision is beyond the ASEAN and is seen by India as an alternative to the APEC, in which India doesn’t enjoy the membership.

Forum for India–Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC): It is a multinational grouping formed in 2014 for cooperation between India and 14 Pacific Islands nations which include Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. It helps India in extending soft and hard power in the Pacific Region.

In addition to the ASEAN, EAS and the FIPIC, groupings such as the BIMSTEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting + (ADMM+) and Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) help India in deepening engagement with the region.

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India's Top 3 Challenges

1. Chinese Challenge: The formidable challenge for India in the Indo-Pacific region is to balance its relations with China. 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. 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 have been testing the strength of the bilateral relations time and again. By taking into account the fact that all the big and small nations in the Indo-Pacific Region have a deeper economic engagement with China, it can be concluded that India must resolve its bilateral issues with China in order to play a significant role in the multilateral groupings of the region.

2. Competing interests: Barring the USA and Canada, India’s economic structure is similar to most of the countries in the region 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 expected to play a spoil sport in forging economic and trade partnerships for India.

3. Connectivity: Connectivity is crucial for forging and sustaining economic, trade and political engagement. The formidable Himalayas in the North-Eastern States and  Myanmar, the narrow zone of Strait of Malacca, trafficking and piracy, 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.

Conclusion

In 2004, the Indian Maritime Doctrine elaborated on the shift in global maritime focus from the Atlantic-Pacific combine to the Pacific-Indian. On various occasions, India’s vision towards the Indo-Pacific Region is exemplified by the growing cooperation with the ASEAN and beyond in recent years. India’s engagement with the region shouldn’t be neither dictated by the USA’s urge to play a greater role in the region as part of its ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy nor should be distracted by anti-China overtures of Japan.

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