The political dimensions


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FROM being adversaries on opposite sides of the great political divide during the Cold War era, India and her Southeast Asian neighbours began to review and re-examine their relationship in the 1990s. It was not accidental that the blossoming of the India-ASEAN ties coincided with two major developments – the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the policy of economic liberalisation set in motion by the P.V. Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh duo from 1991-92, following the deep economic crisis that gripped India.

Both India and ASEAN became conscious of the potential in enhanced political, economic and security co-operation. With the reforms in place and the attractions of the East Asian miracle, New Delhi envisaged great possibilities in forging closer equations in her eastern neighbourhood as foreign minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao fashioned what has come be called the ‘Look East’ policy. His successor in the Ministry of External Affairs, Inder Kumar Gujral, found merit in this policy leading to a sharpening of focus on ASEAN.

The two sides were willing and ready to jettison the historical baggage of the Cold War era and look to a new and dynamic partnership. India was no longer a part of the Soviet bloc and ASEAN was not clinging onto the coat-tails of the U.S. It could see enormous potential in trade and investment ties with India now that New Delhi was ready to embrace free market economics. There was a realization that decision making in India was largely political with even economic ties determined by political equations.

Developments during the Cambodian crisis provided a major opportunity for ASEAN and its member states to observe India more closely and increase interaction with her at the official and political levels. As chair of the International Commission on Cambodia, India played a key role in resolving the Khmer crisis and worked closely with ASEAN and the West to negotiate the Paris Conference and treaty that resulted in an international agreement on Cambodia in 1991. This paved the way for a greater U.N. role in facilitating Cambodia’s return to the international arena and its subsequent experiments with democracy. India played a leading role in holding and monitoring the first ever democratic election in the Kingdom in 1993.

With these developments and a congenial climate for fostering closer ties, India and ASEAN took a fresh look at each other. From the very beginning, it was Singapore that clearly saw India’s potential. During the 1992 ASEAN summit hosted by the city state, India was taken on as a Sectoral Dialogue partner. Four specific sectors were identified for cooperation, but these were incidental. It was to be the beginning of a new and mutually beneficial relationship between Southeast Asia and the subcontinent. But even then, internal conflicts and political crosscurrents in ASEAN were discernible. When Singapore proposed India for sectoral dialogue partnership, some others like Malaysia and Indonesia for instance, wanted Pakistan to be given the same treatment. Consequently, ASEAN decided to take on both the South Asian neighbours as sectoral dialogue partners.

What happened since then is part of history. Thanks to the personal chemistry that the Rao-Singh combine created with the ASEAN leaders and some substantive diplomacy and constructive dialogue that the MEA brought in to play from 1992, a new equation blossomed in just three years.



At the very next ASEAN summit in Bangkok in December 1995, the Southeast Asian leaders decided it was time to graduate India to a Full Dialogue partner status from 1996. India was so inducted at the July 1996 annual Asean ministerial conference in Jakarta. This despite the fact that Narasimha Rao’s Congress(I) had lost power during that period and a United Front regime under H.D. Deve Gowda assumed office with I.K. Gujral as the foreign minister. But it cannot be denied that the credit for fashioning this policy and promoting the equation with ASEAN must go to Narasimha Rao and his government. The successors realized the potential and usefulness of this partnership and have contributed to its evolution over the past five years.

In sharp contrast, ASEAN’s equations with Pakistan did not flower into a partnership. Despite some campaign tours, undertaken first by Benazir Bhutto and then Nawaz Sharif, Islamabad could not get its friends like Malaysia, Indonesia or Brunei to persuade ASEAN to grant Pakistan the dialogue partner status that India had won.

Since 1995, India-ASEAN ties have really gained momentum. It is not merely economic cooperation or trade and investment that set the ball rolling. Without saying so openly, many Southeast Asian governments saw India as a key balancing factor in the Asian equilibrium.

There were many signals to suggest that the U.S. would not always hold the balance in favour of East Asia if it developed problems with China – the region’s ‘Big Brother’. Though there was no getting away from the security partnership with Washington that provided about 100,000 American troops to be stationed in East Asia to meet any eventuality, ASEAN sensed that the U.S. had its own agenda and would be guided purely by its own economic and security interests in the region.

Therefore, ASEAN decided to cultivate India and build a new partnership with its western neighbour who could possibly match China’s potential, both economically and militarily over the long term. New Delhi’s policy of non alignment was a plus point in its favour. So ASEAN had no difficulty in working closely with India in regional and international fora.



What does a dialogue partnership mean and what benefits can it bring India? Not many here understand the full import of this relationship. When the Southeast Asian nations got together and consolidated a regional forum, they foresaw that their future lay in forging closer economic, political and security cooperation with key major players in the world. As an extension of the ASEAN experiment, they introduced the concept of ‘dialogue partnership’ with major trade partners and immediate neighbours to institutionalize a mechanism for cooperation.

Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and the U.S. were in the priority list for this status and dialogue was first initiated with them. Because of the importance of human resource development and funding of major development projects, the UNDP was also welcomed as a partner for ASEAN. Canada and the European Union were later additions. After that phase, China, India and Russia were granted dialogue partner status in 1996. There have been no additions to that list since.



In its scheme of things, ASEAN holds an annual ministerial meeting in July every year. At the end of its internal, regional consultation, it invites the dialogue partners for reviewing developments. This takes place in three ways. First, there is a security dialogue through the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), which has become a security architecture and platform for the Asia Pacific region. Second, there is an ASEAN dialogue partners meeting held in an informal way. And finally, the ASEAN 10 holds individual consultations and interaction with each of the dialogue partners. Now that India has entrenched itself in the ASEAN forum, it is time that it begins to play a role in shaping the course of events in the Asia Pacific region on the economic, political and security fronts.

It was certainly a pity that India could not convince the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) to take it on as a member when the expansion took place in 1998. Vietnam, Peru and Russia were admitted as new members to swell APEC’s membership to 21, along with a freeze for the next 10 years. Analysts are convinced that India failed to secure membership because the U.S. and other member states like Malaysia were lukewarm to the idea. Now that a new and strategic partnership with the U.S. seems to be evolving, things may change even in APEC. Since India does not belong to any credible and influential trade blocs as yet, its entry into APEC may be a desirable course, even if it has to wait it out for another five to eight years

Undeterred by the setback, India continued to build on its ties with ASEAN. The entry of Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar into the fold has added depth and meaning to this partnership. Apart from the maritime boundaries it shares with many ASEAN friends, India has a long land boundary with Myanmar, which is a strategic neighbour to befriend.



Essentially, it is the economic indicators that determine ties with ASEAN. India’s trade with Southeast Asia has grown rapidly since 1992, crossing the $6 billion mark. There was a setback due to the East Asian economic crisis that gripped the region in July 1997. Even then, it was only Indian exports to the region that slipped. Many ASEAN countries have increased their exports to India thanks to a substantial devaluation of their currencies and consequently due to more competitive prices. Historically and traditionally, Singapore and Malaysia have been closer to India in trade and remain the major trading partners. But Thailand and Indonesia have emerged as key players and witnessed a steady growth in their trade with India during the past five years. This trend is likely to continue.

Historically and politically, India has played a significant role in the Indochina region. Unfortunately, the political investment made in that part of Southeast Asia during the 1950s to 1970s was not followed up with economic interaction in the subsequent decades. This had stymied the relationship to an extent, though the warmth in political equations with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia continues to this day.

There have been a series of high level visits from India and by ASEAN leaders to India in the 1990s. President R. Venkataraman and Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao undertook key visits to Southeast Asia in the early 1990s. I.K. Gujral followed it up. The BJP’s Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh, has had occasion to interact more closely and frequently with his ASEAN counterparts during his brief tenure till now. Similarly, leaders from ASEAN have utilized every opportunity to visit India. From ousted President Suharto of Indonesia to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, many of them have visited India since 1992. The list includes Singapore’s Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who came twice in successive years, the former Philippine President, Fidel Ramos, and the Prime Minister of Laos, Khamtay Siphandone, not to leave out the retired General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Do Moi.



But it must be accepted that India does not enjoy the same degree of warmth or friendship with all its ASEAN friends. Singapore, Vietnam and Laos will remain at the top of the list, unless New Delhi does something to spoil the special equations that currently exist. With the advent of President S.R. Nathan in Singapore, who is as India-friendly as his Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, the stage is set to impart a fresh momentum to bilateral relations. It is upto the new government in Delhi to cement this partnership to provide a model to others in the region during the current millennium. After Goh’s visit to India in January, this partnership should now blossom.

Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia and Brunei may not be as friendly with India as the first three when it comes to a crunch. But they can at the least remain neutral. It is unfortunate that Thailand’s Foreign Minister, Surin Pitsuan, does not share the warmth for India; nor do his finance and trade ministers. Thailand is currently the chair, and its foreign minister the chairman of ASEAN’s standing committee for the year.



Now that a new and more democratic government has taken charge in Indonesia, equations are bound to change. The new President, Abdurrahman Wahid, has already signaled his interest in both India and China. His Vice President, Megawati Sukarnoputri, who has age and popularity on her side to be his successor, can also be counted among India’s friends in the region. (Incidentally, the late Biju Patnaik named her Megawati because she was born as her father was being flown to safety in India in a special aircraft.)

In shaping its ties with ASEAN in the 21st century, India must focus closely on Malaysia, Myanmar and the Philippines. While the rest of ASEAN remained stoically silent during India’s nuclear tests in 1998, the Philippines chose to orchestrate a campaign against New Delhi on the basis of its anti-nuclear policy. Many considered it to be at the behest of Japan, but the way Manila behaved during the 1998 Asean conference it hosted has resulted in a setback to bilateral ties. This needs to be addressed in the short and medium term.

There has been a thaw in relations with Yangon. But its military junta remains conscious of India’s support to the pro democracy movement led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. This will remain a sticky point in ties between the two countries, as also the fact that India does not want to be seen forging too close a relationship with a military regime, even it if it be the government of the day.

The future lies in dealing effectively with the government in power to protect India’s security interests in the region, particularly because of the close equations between Yangon and Beijing. Without going out of the way to champion democracy in Myanmar, India can let its people and organizations do the talking to promote democracy in that country.



As for Malaysia, relations will remain complex till Mahathir Mohamad remains in power, and he has just won another five year mandate. In his attempt to be ‘more Malay than the Malays’, Mahathir, who has ruled since 1981, wants economic cooperation with India without stepping onto a political equation. While persisting with the present policy of engagement and increased trade cooperation with Kuala Lumpur, it would be worthwhile to wait and see who will be the successor in Malaysia before moving towards that elusive partnership. Though the former foreign minister, Abdullah Badawi continues to be the deputy prime minister (after Anwar Ibrahim’s ouster in 1998), the last word on the succession issue has not been said.

There are any number of opportunities and occasions for India to engage ASEAN in a constant and constructive dialogue on a variety of issues that are of mutual interest. Apart from the annual ASEAN meetings, they overlap in other platforms too. For instance, the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IORARC) seeks to bond the entire Indian Ocean community together to further economic and political cooperation. Many of ASEAN’s members are a part of this forum.

In an attempt to bring ASEAN closer to South Asia, a new Bay of Bengal community christened the Bangladesh India Myanmar Sri Lanka and Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) forum was launched three years ago. As Thailand’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sukhumbhand Paribatra, noted in one of his lectures*, it is the ‘consensus approach’ which has kept ASEAN going. And it is only by adopting that approach that ASEAN-South Asia cooperation can also be promoted. BIMSTEC can be the beginning of both an ASEAN-SAARC partnership and a potential Bay of Bengal community that has so much in common. Paribatra explains this approach thus: ‘First, deliberate avoidance of addressing issues considered too divisive and second, deliberate procrastination in putting forward for deliberation new issues considered too controversial.’

India has often followed a policy of adopting a low profile at most of the regional and international forums, unless issues of national interest are at stake. Instead of being weighed down by such a policy, New Delhi must be more forthcoming to seize opportunities that the dialogue with ASEAN offers. Without appearing to be overbearing or big brotherly, India must push its own agenda so long as it does not clash with ASEAN’s.



Besides utilizing the platform provided by ASEAN, India must also institutionalize its bilateral, consultative mechanisms with some of these countries. The Singapore example may be worth following. The ministries of foreign affairs of India and Singapore have set up an annual dialogue at the official level to discuss bilateral, regional and international issues of concern. A similar mechanism can be tried with Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. The Joint Commission meetings and consultative committees with other countries must be held with regularity to maintain the interaction.

Once India-ASEAN links are strengthened and consolidated, it may useful to focus on ASEAN-SAARC ties, both politically and economically. Since India and South Asia do not find a place in any of the major trade blocs that have taken shape till now, the real alternative will be to work together with fellow Asian countries on issues of mutual concern.



For instance, the reform of the UN, the future direction of the WTO and the evolution of a new world order are areas in which both ASEAN and SAARC can work together to forge a consensus. ASEAN has already set up a dialogue with Australia and New Zealand, the European Commission and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Area), basically to promote trade and investments. It may be equally important to promote greater understanding and regular consultations between Southeast and South Asia.

Just as India decided to Look East, Southeast Asia wanted to focus its attention to the West. Apart from India and South Asia, many of the ASEAN countries are looking at Central Asia and Southern Africa for the future. This can be converted into a lasting partnership. Just as India can utilize the expertise of ASEAN countries to tap the potential in Indochina or the Philippines, the ASEAN countries can tie up with India to do business with Central and West Asia, as well as Southern Africa.

ASEAN politicians and officials are fond of describing a useful partnership as a ‘win-win’ situation – where both sides stand to gain. By cementing ties with ASEAN on the political, economic and security fronts, and making a success of its Look East policy, India will be laying a strong foundation for the next millennium.



*At a seminar in New Delhi in December 1995, under the joint auspices of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, India International Centre and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. Paribatra was not a deputy minister at that time, but represented the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Bangkok.