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India ASEAN Partnership : Stabilising The Upheaval

-By Ravi Srivastava

(This article has also been featured by a National Magazine on 28th July 2023.)

a 4 mins read.

Shaping Up

ASEAN or Association of South East Asian Nations was established on 08 August 1967. It’s first five members Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, The Philippines and Malaysia signed the ASEAN Declaration at Bangkok. Further, five more South East Asian nations namely Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia were added to the grouping. Cambodia which became it’s 10th member was the last to join in 1999. Emergence of the ASEAN was a rather low-key affair as most of them formed part of ‘Third World’ countries. The grouping however, appeared much more significant in view of it’s geostrategic location.

Six of ASEAN’s 10 member states are spread around South China Sea (SCS) which has an expanse of   3.5 million sqkm. It is the shortest shipping route between Indian Ocean and East Asian countries, it has one third of global shipping movement carrying more than 30% of world trade. It’s member Indonesia is the closest to Australia which is another emerging player in the region and an entry point towards Pacific. Many of the ASEAN countries have run into problems with their mighty neighbour China, due to overlapping claims on island territories. Add to it the considerable presence of US it makes this entire region one of the most hotly contested waters on the planet.

Connectivity & Cooperation

ASEAN strengthened it’s security cooperation mechanism with creation of ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) on 01 March 2009. An interesting facet of the APSC has been it’s formulation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the SCS. It’s one-of-a-kind initiative and amplifies the significance ASEAN associates towards the governance of the SCS, which it considers as an indispensable and a shared heritage.

The gravity of conflicts ASEAN faces with China is enormous. China’s steady headways into SCS and obsession with Taiwan issue has led to a collateral damage towards regional peace and security. The biggest brunt of it has been faced by the ASEAN countries. A mechanism called ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) was established in 2006 to address critical security issues and largely formulated keeping need for negotiations with China in mind. Since then, the arrangement has graduated to become ADMM+ with eight dialogue partners US, China, India, Russia, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand under this arrangement. India as a regular dialogue partner has maintained focussed approach towards capacity building, regional peace and connectivity. India is only the second country apart from China to have shared land borders with ASEAN. It adds the possibilities of roadways & railways making it highly reliable means of connectivity. India has been looking to leverage this advantage and has pushed for road linkage through 1,360 Km length India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) Trilateral Highway. It has also proposed to further connect Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam through a new East-West corridor. These initiatives followed by linkages through rail networks will rapidly enhance closer integration of India and ASEAN.

Security Paradox

Security challenges for ASEAN has taken a 3600 turn in recent years. Going back to it’s early days, the group integrated itself as closely possible with China. The advantages of closer ports at Guangzhou and Shanghai and land borders with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam was only facilitating huge Sino – ASEAN trade and commerce. This undoubtedly benefitted ASEAN and as per China’s ASEAN mission their mutual trade has undergone a 65% jump over last three years. This trade volume constitutes almost 26% of ASEAN total global trade. Today ASEAN economy is expected to be upward of $3.66 trillion as of last year, comprising almost 7% of global trade share. Contrary to rosy pictures on trade front ASEAN countries are facing severe pushback from China along their island territories, maritime borders and right to economic activities in their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).

China in last decade especially has established physical control over a number of natural and artificial features across the SCS which is hotly contested by other ASEAN members in the region. In 2013 after years of failed dispute negotiations between China and The Philippines over the Scarborough shoal, China forcibly removed Filipino assets and erected physical barriers to prevent access of the feature by The Philippines. It led to maritime clashes between Chinese and Filipino coastguards. In 2009 China officially claimed major parts of SCS in its note Verbale to the UN with its ‘nine-dash line’ map. The claim was as absurd as it was arrogant by it’s artificial logic, it granted China undisputed claim over whole of SCS and invaded into EEZs of Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. China and another ASEAN member Vietnam with the 1979 bloody war history behind them clashed over the jurisdiction of Spratly Islands. Chinese move to extend oil exploration within Vietnamese EEZ led to these clashes on the high sea.

The Chinese assertiveness across the SCS and it’s readiness to undertake harsh military actions has given entire ASEAN a hot headache. The July 2016 verdict of International Court of Arbitration summarily rejected Chinese arguments of ‘nine dash line’ and ruled – it deliberately violated Philippines sovereign rights of economic activities. Naturally China didn’t accepted the verdict but nevertheless it completely punctured Chinese cries of righteousness and exposed it’s intent of gaining economic windfall in SCS. China’s 80% of energy imports and 40% of total trade passes through SCS. It is also estimated that SCS hold almost 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. These estimated data would be good enough to take China towards Oil & Gas self-sufficiency and it acted as a real trigger behind Chinese regional expansionism.

Defence Partnership

An aggressive China with massive military and economic muscle is an unfolding nightmare for most ASEAN countries. ASEAN quietly but desperately looking for a balancing support to ensure global norms are followed and freedom of navigation is maintained within their most vital sea lanes in SCS. India also holds similar concerns in the region. India has clear memories of it’s naval ship INS Airavat being ‘intercepted’ in SCS in July 2011 while on a friendly port call to Vietnam, also it’s oil exploration projects with Vietnam was severely objected by the dubious Chinese claims. India has made a concerted efforts to integrate itself more closely with ASEAN nations. India has formulated multiple structured dialogue at ministerial and services level for capacity and capability building with the ASEAN addressing overlapping concerns.

India has been a regular feature at the various Fleet reviews and exercises hosted in ASEAN countries. ASEAN India Maritime Exercise (AIME) the first ever such exercise was recently held at The Changi Naval Base of Singapore from 2-8 May 2023. This mega event participated by over 1400 personnel with sea phase conducted in SCS. Another event which cannot be missed for it’s strategic significance is conduct of a simultaneous exercise involving Indian and the Royal Thai Navy, a key ASEAN member in the Sea of Andamans, from 3-10 May 2023. Both the exercises were ostensibly – ‘to keep the ocean lanes safe and secure for international trade, build up interoperability between navies and facilitates instituting measures to prevent unlawful activities’. As part of India’s ‘Act East’ and ‘Security and Growth for all in the Region’ (SAGAR) initiatives India continues to harness it’s stated view of freedom of navigation and rules-based order dictated by UNCLOS for conduct in SCS.

India and ASEAN further elevated their mutual corporation to ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ in November 2022. The presence of Indian Navy Chief Admiral R. Hari Kumar for the flagging off event of AIME 2023 at the Singapore base was no less significant, such instances are clear signalling of India’s willingness and long-term commitment to positively engage with ASEAN. The geopolitical upheaval in the region, especially around SCS, is fully appreciated by ASEAN where heavy US & Chinese presence is fuelling daily confrontation coupled with almost unwelcome arrival of NATO in Japan through their proposed ‘Liaison Office’ has all the ingredients of miscalculations. Under these difficult circumstances the standing of India as a major power gains high prominence. The ASEAN recognises India’s capacity to favourably influence geopolitical outcomes and be a strong stabilising catalyst for the turbulent times ahead!

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