New Delhi must capitalise on Asean’s eagerness to engage
Asean is a successful institution because, by banding together and integrating their economies, member-countries collectively wield more clout than each individual member could hope to assert.
Two of the most important geopolitical developments in recent years have been the revival of Quad and the focus of Quad countries — Australia, India, Japan, and the United States (US) — on the Indo-Pacific as a theatre for strategic competition with China. Yet, a very important actor in the Indo-Pacific is often overlooked, both in terms of its cooperation with Quad countries and in terms of its role in the region.
This actor is the institutional grouping called the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) comprising 10 countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Recently, the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration released its National Security Strategy, which, despite acknowledging Asean as a central player in a free and open Indo-Pacific, devoted hardly any space to a discussion on either US-Asean or Quad-Asean cooperation.
India, too, has historically neglected to capitalise on opportunities with Asean. These omissions are all the more surprising given two somewhat contradictory facts: China has been expanding its influence hugely among Asean countries even as many countries of the grouping remain extremely wary of China.
Asean is a successful institution because, by banding together and integrating their economies, member-countries collectively wield more clout than each individual member could hope to assert. Moreover, Asean operates on the strict principle of non-intervention in each member’s affairs, thereby allowing countries such as Myanmar — with a dubious human rights record — to join and cooperate with its neighbours in the region, secure in the knowledge that their domestic politics will remain off limits in Asean discussions.
Perhaps the most important glue of the institution is its unspoken need to balance China’s encroachment and influence in the Indo-Pacific at the expense of member-nations, even though some members, such as Cambodia and Laos, are closer to China than others.
Given this last subtext, as well as China’s looming proximity in the region, Asean has historically played a careful and delicate balancing act, engaging with China while also reaching out to other countries to draw them into the region. In the 1990s, for example, well before the US made any effort to emphasise India’s strategic importance in the Indo-Pacific, Asean attempted to develop partnerships with India as a way to balance China’s increasing presence in the region.
Asean hoped that then Prime Minister (PM) PV Narasimha Rao’s Look East Policy (LEP) would capitalise on Asean’s interest. Though initially optimistic, Asean became increasingly frustrated with India, deeming it slow to act and questioning its commitment to partnerships in the region. In an implicit acknowledgement of the failure of LEP and the shortsightedness of the Indian government of that time, PM Narendra Modi rebooted the policy a few years ago as the Act East Policy.
Today, China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific is acknowledged to be a strategic threat by all Quad countries. Compounding this worry is the fact that China has made huge and varying inroads in the Southeast Asian region in recent years, even during the pandemic. As of this year, Asean is China’s largest trading partner. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has become unusually important in the region with several projects crisscrossing the boundaries of Asean States, binding China and the region together in investment, connectivity, and diplomacy.
China has also invested in key sectors that enhance its ability to control the flow of information. For example, some Thai TV channels are now owned by Chinese companies, and Chinese State media outlets produce news in Thai for distribution to Thai media outlets. There are also societal ties — China consistently emphasises its ethnic ties with Asean citizens of Chinese origin while a younger generation (those under 30) in Asean countries are more likely to see China as a governance model and hold more positive views.
Asean countries acknowledge China’s growing influence, but continue to remain wary even as other major powers are not seen to be doing enough for members. A recent ISEAS Institute survey conducted among Asean respondents shows some of these attitudes. Nearly 58% agreed that China did more to provide Covid-19 vaccine support to the region than countries such as the US or India, but only 18% trusted Chinese-made vaccines; 76% believe that China is the most influential economic power in the region (10% believe it is the US, while 0.1% believe it is India), but 42% also believe that China is revisionist and intends to make Southeast Asia its sphere of influence. Only 36% of respondents (between 50% and 60% in Myanmar, the Philippines, and Singapore) trust that AUKUS can balance China’s growing power in the region.
This survey reveals an opportunity for Quad countries to step up their cooperation with Asean nations. The US is seen as a mostly reliable strategic partner in the region (although this confidence has decreased since 2021), while Japan remains extremely trusted. India, on the other hand, is still mostly distrusted — almost 40% of Asean respondents believe that India does not have the capacity or will for global leadership and remains fixed on its internal affairs.
In theory, Modi’s vision of SAGAR — Security And Growth for All in the Region — a part of Act East Policy should appeal to Asean due to its emphasis on a rules-based order, free from domination by a single country. Moreover, India’s engagement with Asean has increased significantly in recent years.
However, delays in certain projects and India’s decision to stay out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership have disappointed Asean. India’s reluctance to participate is unfortunate — all countries in Quad need to capitalise on Asean’s eagerness for major power engagement in the region to counterbalance China.
After all, that is their overarching mutual goal.
Manjari Chatterjee Miller is senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia, Council on Foreign Relations
The views expressed are personal