Commentary: Umesh Pandey
The gathering of Asean leaders in New Delhi late last week was unprecedented in the history of India and the 10-member Southeast Asian grouping, and marks a new beginning to a relationship that could be crucial for the development of the two regions.
The heads of government were in the Indian capital to commemorate the 20th anniversary of engagement by once-introverted India with Asean. The timing and location were significant given the backdrop of rising tensions between various Asean members and China and between India and China.
The disputes in the South China Sea have been amply documented. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia all have claims that overlap those of China, and sometimes those of each other as well.
India and China have had border issues for decades, and lately Delhi has grown extremely wary of the growing might of the world’s second largest economy. The last straw came with the issuance this year of new Chinese passports with maps showing parts of northeastern India as Chinese territory.
In this respect New Delhi was not alone, as the ambitious Chinese mapmakers also managed to anger the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and possibly others.
Therefore, the meeting last week took on added significance. Many heads of government held bilateral talks with the Indian leaders, and expectations are that the two sides discussed ways to increase bilateral and multilateral cooperation, apart from raising the issue of the rising power of China.
In fairness, China has seldom been the aggressor and even in the 1962 war with India, which by the way India lost, China withdrew its forces from Indian territory. But that was then — China at the time was still not rich enough to support an all-out campaign of aggression against a large neighbour, while today things are very different.
China has the world’s largest foreign-exchange reserves, estimated at $3.3 trillion. It is the darling of all investors (except perhaps the Japanese lately), and has been spending heavily on upgrading its military power over the past decade. To top this off, nationalist propaganda has been on the rise, something that was very much evident from the protests and boycotts of Japanese products over the disputed Senkaku islands, which China refers to as the Diaoyu chain.
All this does not bode well for either India or Asean, and therefore the Delhi meeting is something that might serve to bring the two regions closer should they feel the need to take on the larger rival in the north.
With a combined population of 1.6 billion people and a gross domestic product of more than $4.5 trillion, the combined India-Asean region could well be wise to work together to assert itself and not let China set the agenda.
And as always, trade, investments and freer movement of people will help create more cordial relations between the two regions. Asean and India already have a free trade agreement in goods, and last week they agreed to expand the pact to cover services and investment.
India’s trade with Asean has been on the upswing, reaching $80 billion in 2011 compared with $47 billion in 2008. The target has now been hiked to $200 billion by 2020, a level that appears quite achievable now that the FTA is gathering momentum.
The expanded FTA was long overdue, while other bilateral pacts also need to be expedited, and the red tape impeding their conclusion cut as soon as possible.
More activity between Asean and India would provide a counterbalance to the high amount of trade — $363 billion last year — between Asean and China, which also have an FTA.
Tapping into Asean is also crucial for India which wants to keep China’s growing influence in check. China, loaded with money, has been buying its way into the region like never before.
Greater connectivity in all aspects, be it trade, movement of people or services and investment, any perceived greater aggression from the Chinese.
The fact that China is now in dispute with nearly half of Asean, not to mention Japan and others, is an open invitation to India to become a more active participant in promoting a balance in the regional power play.
But the sad fact about India has always been that it generates a lot of hype at the beginning and fails to follow up in the months or years ahead. There is fear once again that the Delhi government could squander a golden opportunity to claim a leadership role.
Such opportunities do not knock very often, and if they are not grabbed there is a risk that India could slip back to being what it has always been famous for — more talk, less action.