Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, recently in Delhi for the June 16-17 Special ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, declared “ASEAN matters even more to India.” He was reflecting on media questions about India’s need for ASEAN, given its deepening engagement with the Quad and sign-on to Washington’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
If New Delhi was able to convince ASEAN leaders that the homage to ASEAN centrality went beyond rhetoric, that would be a win for India’s heavy investments in mainstreaming its Indo Pacific strategy, especially in Southeast Asia. India became an outlier in the region when it opted out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Framework (RCEP), raising doubts over its reliability to deliver on the economic front.
Yet geopolitical alignments, as history has taught us, are time sensitive. As ASEAN finds its house divided by internal tensions, it is distancing itself from being burnt by squabbling superpowers, the U.S. and China. Similarly, India’s increasing tensions with China across its land and maritime borders, amplified by political instability in the neighborhood, have made New Delhi’s strategic choices trickier. The war in Ukraine has left little room to maneuver in terms of strategic hedging and getting drawn into bloc-style competition has not been India or ASEAN’s preferred course of action.
So can the two, commanding both economies and demographics of scale, lean on each other? Dr. S. Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, reflected on this when he met with ASEAN leaders as the two sides celebrated 30 years of diplomatic ties: “As the world moves towards greater rebalancing, multi-polarity and globalization, India and ASEAN will have to consider what this means for their relationship.”
New Delhi would do well to pat attention to the region’s internal debates to find the way forward.
The Trouble with Casting China-U.S. Competition as a “Systemic” Rivalry
At the Shangri-la Dialogue, held a few days earlier, it was striking to hear the extent of the unease in Southeast Asia and the Pacific countries on the sharpening of China-U.S. strategic competition. Many cast it as a “systemic rivalry.” What is seen as a legitimate narrative for framing the strategic decoupling of China on one side and the U.S. and Europe on the other has little buy-in, apparently, in large parts of Asia.
While global headlines naturally focused on Japan’s Prime Minister Kishida Fumio’s ominous warning that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow” or the Chinese defense chief’s war cry of “fighting” the U.S. until the very “end” on Taiwan, the real story was of Southeast Asian nations calling out big powers repeatedly for a lack of strategic restraint and the need for reassurance.
Singapore’s Defense Minister Dr. Ng Eng Hen spoke of this when alluding to the new problems in Asia compounding the situation in Europe, with worst-case scenarios including in Taiwan and the China-India border. However, his emphasis on Asia rejecting this narrative of systemic struggle could not have been clearer. He said Asia would do well to convey that “it is not an ideological struggle between autocracies and democracies (…) Asian countries are too diverse and pluralistic and there would be few takers for a battle royale to ensue on that basis.”
Yet it was Fijian Minister of Defense Inia Batikoto Seruiratu’s impassioned speech that provided the much-needed reality check to this conversation when he said, “In our Blue Pacific Continent, machine guns, fighter jets, gray ships and green battalions are not our primary security concern. The single greatest threat to our very existence is climate change.”
It would be imperative for driving powers in the Indo Pacific to heed this call and prioritize the region’s demands.
India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative, announced at the East Asia Summit in 2019, finds congruence with the ASEAN outlook for the Indo Pacific specifically on this front. The Quad has stepped up its efforts with a working group targeting climate change and maritime security challenges. The latest G-7 summit announced a rebranded $600 billion Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) — where India, Indonesia, and Vietnam in particular could receive new financing to transition to clean energy. With the United States’ renewed focus on the region, alongside the European Union, Japan, and France’s recent outreach, India has many friends with which to find new ways to partner with ASEAN and deliver beyond binary choices.
Permutations and combinations of possible partnerships abound. We have seen much progress in the realm of defense cooperation in many such groupings. The question therefore is really of the region’s comfort.
Minilateralism Is the Way Forward, But What About the Quad?
The answer perhaps lies in not reinventing the wheel, but looking at how Southeast Asia has prioritized and found creative solutions to its own challenges and finding parallels.
For instance, at the Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Minister of Defense Malaysia Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein spoke of “collective solutions” being “essential.” Giving examples of the Trilateral Cooperation Arrangement (TCA) forged by Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines in mid-2016 to check kidnappings and terrorist activities by militant groups, he offered that foundations of wider security cooperation can be laid on smaller building blocks, such as subregional cooperation initiatives. Describing the success of minilaterals like the Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP), he said the key to these efforts would be “a gradual approach.”
All of this sounds relatively familiar to those sitting in New Delhi and various capitals in the Indo Pacific. Issue-based coalitions, where function not form drive content and allow for flexibility, collective solutions, and capacity building, have certainly been India’s rationale for participating in a spate of regional groupings cooperating in the Indo-Pacific in the face of rising Chinese aggression.
So how would Southeast Asia feel about working on specific issues with groupings like the Quad? Singapore’s Ng answered that eloquently when he shot back in a discussion: “What is the remit of this architecture? What is the relevance, and most – quite – just as important, what is the reassurance?”
India Could Do Well in Reassuring ASEAN
Simply put, mutual need to find the middle ground could drive this reassurance and search for reliable alternatives.
Bilaterally, India and ASEAN have identified areas where they could do more, such as in the digital sphere, green technologies, sustainable development, carbon markets, and leaning on India to ensure global logistics chain and food supplies are not interrupted. There is a sense of urgency in acting together in organizations like the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), but specifically Mekong subregional cooperation frameworks, which focus on boosting connectivity, could shake off some of the inertia in the relationship and deliver on key asks.
This could find complementarity with initiatives like the Mekong-U.S. Partnership that looks to mitigate the aftershocks of Chinese dam-building in the upper reaches of the Mekong River, which runs through the five mainland ASEAN member states. As Singaporean Diplomat Bilahari Kausikan warned, these dams are not only an ecological hazard, but “together with north-south railways and highways, could entrench a dependence on Beijing that would reshape the strategic geography of Southeast Asia and could turn the boundaries between southwestern China and Southeast Asia into just lines on maps.”
Since this effort also draws from resources of the Quad in terms of coordination, India could be the bridge reassuring ASEAN of the grouping, which is now coming of age in terms of its expansive mandate. The Quad’s announcements of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) which looks to address a longstanding demand for an economic logic to the region’s remapping, and the Maritime Domain Awareness initiative (IPMDA), which seeks to assist countries in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations as well as combat illegal fishing, often seen as gray zone tactics by China, are clear signs of intent. Naturally, support from ASEAN countries would be imperative for the Quad to deliver on its declared agenda of serving the public good in the Pacific writ-large.
Moreover, India perhaps knows a thing or two about gradual progress in minilateral groupings. Not too long ago critics of New Delhi called it the weakest link in the Quad for its incremental progress in participating in the group’s agenda and its insistence on not picking sides.
Following the pragmatic advice of the Malaysian defense minister could be the way forward for ASEAN: “Multilateralism and minilateralism, we don’t have to have one above the other. You can have both.” New Delhi, viewed by ASEAN as independent from both the U.S. and China, could help building this strategic trust. However for New Delhi to reassure ASEAN actions will have to speak louder than words.