China-India relations

How India and Asean are working together without pushing China away

C. Uday Bhaskar says the Delhi Declaration, following the India-Asean summit, managed to strike a balance between growing closer to accomplish mutual objectives while avoiding baiting Beijing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 January, 2018, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 January, 2018, 7:41pm

After India hosted Asean’s 10 leaders at its Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi last week, the 36-paragraph Delhi Declaration was released by the 11 heads of state. It covers political, economic, security and cultural issues, but its China-related subtext is instructive.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has its own internal dissonance on China, and some members appear more beholden to Beijing than others. India began a dialogue with Asean 25 years ago in an attempt to bring balance to the 10-member bloc’s relations with the two Asian giants.

Recently, discomfort with Beijing’s assertiveness has grown in Asean capitals, along with their economic dependency on China. The contrast with India is stark: most of Asean welcomes India’s emergence as a regional power and its increased participation in Southeast Asian politics.

India scored a diplomatic coup with all 10 leaders together in Delhi, demonstrating a strong endorsement between Asean and India. This had to be done in a manner that would not cause a flutter over China, while highlighting areas for cooperation and collective concern.

The text of the Delhi Declaration does this effectively. The opening section on political and security cooperation dwells on “inclusive and rules-based regional architecture” and highlights “Asean-led frameworks and mechanisms”. Freedom of navigation, lawful use of the seas and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea get a mention in relation to the South China Sea and were highlighted in a persuasive manner. The signatories support current initiatives and “look forward to an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct” in the sea.

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India’s concern with terrorism has been noted with the inclusion of “countering” cross-border terrorist movement and a reiteration of the need to block terrorist funding. There is no reference to the Indo-Pacific as a construct; the Indian and Pacific oceans are mentioned individually – but in the economic cooperation section, along with a commitment to swiftly conclude a “mutually beneficial Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership”. There is no reference to the “quad”, which irked China when mooted by the US and Japan, with India as a major partner.

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We may infer that India and Asean are assuaging Beijing’s concerns that the Delhi summit would attempt to criticise or contain China. Encouragingly, the Chinese welcomed India’s invitation to the Asean leaders and offered “constructive” participation towards regional development. Some malleability in the Sino-Indian relationship may be on the cards.

Commodore C. Uday Bhaskar is director of the Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. [email protected]