THE BALANCING ACT
Author: Rajiv Bhatia
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India is important to Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); it is viewed as a benign power; and huge scope exists to develop cooperation with it. This is proved by the participation of leaders of the members of ASEAN countries in the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit, held in New Delhi (a second summit in five years) and their historic presence as chief guests at the Republic Day celebrations.
China’s assertive diplomacy, strategic postures and coercive action in the South China Sea has made the ASEAN countries look towards India as a balancer in the region.
ASEAN is important for India in terms of strategic and economic considerations. Distinctions between ‘immediate neighborhood’ and ‘extended neighborhood’ should not matter anymore.
The summit’s Delhi Declaration reflects a mutual commitment “to further deepen and strengthen” the strategic partnership. The elements of the Delhi Declaration can be summarized in the following heads:
- Political-security cooperation
- Freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.
- Collaboration of navies of ASEAN states and Indian Navy.
- India’s support to ASEAN efforts to obtain a legally binding Code of Conduct with China in the South China Sea.
- Socio-cultural exchanges
- Scale up and diversify exchanges in the desired fields. Use ‘Moral Connectivity’ placing people at the Centre of inter-state relations.
- Economic issues
- Taking trade and commerce to a higher level.
- Full utilisation of the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area.
- Swift conclusion of a modern, comprehensive and high quality Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
- Connectivity and cooperation in narrowing the development gap
- Enhancing physical and digital connectivity.
India could look to engage nations such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore and others in the deliberations of ‘the Quad’ comprising India, U.S., Japan and Australia.