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" India-ASEAN Relations; Challenges & Opportunities for 21st Century ".

India and ASEAN need to shift gears in the Maritime Domain to revisit the glory of the past and rewrite the future.

A reminder of the Gloriouspast.Thousand years ago,RajendraChola’s coronation took place in a place in Tamil Nadu known as GangaikondaCholapuram. (Roughly translated means the King who brought Ganga after his victory in the Northern States which bordered river Ganga). Both Rajendra and Raja RajendraChola ruled almost the entire South India, Northern Sri Lanka and South East Asia. It has been recorded that the Cholas (985-1054 A.D) were seafarers who also believed in maintaining a naval force for achieving supremacy at sea. They defeated the Sri Vijayas who ruled the Malayan peninsula, Java, Sumatra and adjacent areas in 1007 AD during an expedition establishing the Chola empires rule in the area[1]. The period of nearly 700 years from 5th to 12th century when the Sri Vijaya empire ruled the entire eastern seas  including the areas of South East Asian countries.[2]

The commemoration of a millennium of this great event took place on 24-25thJuly in GangaikondaCholapuram which houses the Siva’s temple which is the next biggest temple after the Brihadeeswara temple in Tanjavur. It has been recorded that the son did not want this temple to be bigger than the one built by his father Rajendra    Chola.  The event in which both the Government and civil agencies participated in large number reminded the nation of the legendary maritime prowess of the Chola’s who ruled many parts of India and also wielded influence in the South East Asian countries.

When looking at the past, there is also a need to look at the prescriptions of Chankya in Arthashastra a wonderful treatise on statecraft. The now well-known Mandala theory also would need to be revisited while reviving the relations with the ASEAN countries. If the present trends are any indication, it appears that India is taking measured steps in this direction by trying to comply with Chanakya to regain the past glory of the last millennium.

The Present. When one moves fast forward by thousand years, the thousandth year of the coronation in 2014 is witnessing events of great importance to the future of relations with the ASEAN countries with India .The association of countries in the South East Asia grouped under the umbrella of ASEAN, has immense significanceto Asia’s prosperity, security and stability by leveraging the advantages conferred in the maritime domain. A look at some of the key events this year is indicative of the growing importance to this region and also the need for enhanced scope of interaction with the countries in this region that appear greatly inclined to raise the bar in terms of dealing with India a rising  and a relevant Asian power alongside China. The year that has gone by also has many important issues which will pave the way for the future of India-ASEAN relations. As per the MEA annual report 2013-2014  there were engagements with the ASEAN countries  and a dialogue was established  with Law Enforcement Agencies and other stake holders on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster (HADR). There have also been dialogues on maritime security and cyber security with key partners[3]. The airlift of critical relief supplies to the victims of typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines has been lauded and there have been greater exchanges in Science and Technology including in space applications.[4]The biannual event Milan which has been received very well by the participating nations also witnessed the passage exercises with nine warships from South and South East Asian navies by sailing out together on 9th February 2014[5] after completing various coordination exercises, seminars and table top exercises in Port Blair. Milan[6] as a confidence building interactive programme provides an ideal platform for enhancing the scope of such interaction both with ASEAN and other navies of the region.

The 24th ASEAN summit was conducted in Myanmar (which is now the Chair this year) from 10-11th May 2014 increasingly signaling the importance being attached to the integration of a democratized Myanmar that would be a link nation in SE Asia. Myanmar will play an important role in the future of ASEAN not just as the Chair but also as a major link both over land and through the surrounding seas.

With the change of Government in India, it appears that there would be additional engagements in the ASEAN which can be identified as the center of gravity in the newly defined Indo Pacific area. MsSwarajthe Minister of External Affairs of India has already visited Myanmar,the present Chair of ASEAN in August this year for the East Asia Summit/ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial meetings. This visit is also important as it is for the first time that India chose to raise the issue of South China Sea by reference to the concept of the freedom of navigation on the highways of the oceans called the Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCs).It appears that China was embarrassed as it found India joining the chorus of ASEAN members who are very concerned with the aggressive behaviour of China which claims the entire South China Sea.

Close on the heels of this visit came the visit to Vietnam and China indicating the importance attached not only to ASEAN countries but also China which is a key player in the regional security calculus.  So the new Government appears quite keen to engage with the ASEAN countries both during formal and informal meetings. While China enjoyed enormous support from Myanmar during the period of its isolation due to the military rulers, it appears that Myanmar on its path to democracy is trying to move away from too much of dependence on China its big neighbour.  India has always been interested in Myanmar with historical and cultural relations and now even more so with democracy taking roots.

India which was weary of the military rulers in Myanmar had shunned relations much to its disadvantage. However, India has been actively engaging even with the military junta in Myanmar on the diplomatic, economic and defence fronts over the last several years to counter China’s expanding footprint in Indian Ocean region countries. Myanmar is the only ASEAN country with which India shares land and maritime borders and therefore forms an important link in the security architecture over both land and sea.As recently as on 08 May2014, India and Myanmar signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Border Cooperation[7]. This MoU provides a framework for security cooperation and exchange of information between Indian and Myanmar security agencies. Apart from providing for coordinated patrols on their respective sides of the international border and the maritime boundary by the armed forces of the two countries, both sides have agreed to exchange information in the fight against insurgency, and trafficking of arms, drug, human and wildlife. Steps to prevent illegal cross-border activities have also been agreed upon.

Two flagship events were organized as part of the commemorative year event to mark the twentieth anniversary of India ASEAN relations. Firstly the sailing expedition of INS Sudarshini to ASEAN countries which brought back the memories of the oceanic connectivity in this region that spread the Hindu /Budhist religion/tradition and culturalpractices to the South East Asian countries. The passage of Sudarshini a naval Sail Training Ship visited all the ports in South East Asia to recapture the glory of Indian Kingdoms that wielded considerable influence and built up maritime trade and commerce in the region. Secondly, the ASEAN-India Car Rally, 2012 which brought out the essence of land connectivity which holds great promise for over the land connectivity trade and people to people contacts..

Bi-lateral exercises.  It is clear that the navies of the ASEAN countries are as enthusiastic about conducting bi- lateral exercises with India which is engaged in building a blue water navy, which is the strongest navy in the Indian Ocean Region. These have contributed immensely in establishing Standard Operating Procedures(SOPs) for inter-operability while working together for facing both conventional and unconventional threats. The details of some of the exercises with the navies of the ASEAN countries aregiven in the succeeding paragraph.

SIMBEX (Singapore India Maritime Bilateral Exercise) – The SIMBEX as the name suggests has been conducted regularly enabling the navies to learn from each other. Singapore also has the ReCAAP organization located where Indian Coast Guard officers are posted regularly to generate and analyse the piracy attacks in the Asian waters. Singapore also has the Data Fusion Center and the International Fusion Center [8]where naval officers from India are deputed to work on data assimilation and sharing in areas of interest. The exercises with Singapore were conducted in the South China Sea from 2005 every alternate year. India has shared its expertise in Anti-Submarine warfare and other coordination exercises.

Multilateral Exercises.Multi nation Exercise with navies of Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines are conducted since 1995 is being conducted biennially in the Bay of Bengal. This is hosted by the Indian Navy.Indo-Thai Coordinated Patrol (Indo-Thai CORPAT)                Thailand bilateral exercise conducted biannually was started in September 2005 and is conducted along the maritime boundary line between the two countries.IND-INDO CORPAT (India-Indonesia Coordinated Patrol) is another bi lateral that was started in the year 2000, which is also conducted along the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL). While all the exercises indicated above have ensured that there is Navy to Navy dialogue, there are no formailised arrangements with the ASEAN even for Search and Rescue purposes or Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR). What the above demonstrates is that there is active interest on both sides   in meeting the challenges in the global commons. However, it may be noted that by and large these have been at the lower spectrum of maritime engagements in the region .The Malacca Straits which is central to the maritime trade and economy in this region is again witnessing increasing number of piracy attacks .The freedom from pirates which brought in peace and tranquility for a long time is again under threat. There would be a need for the maritime nations of the region to have coordinated efforts similar to that initiated off the Somali coast. The concerted efforts by the navies of the world off the African coast did bring the menace of piracy under control and demonstrates that the collective action by determined navies of the world would ensure the freedom of the seas and safety of transportation along the maritime corridors of the world including through choke points. There is a need to move beyond the bi lateral exercises to make the engagements even more meaningful for promoting regional maritime security and safety architecture. Some of the areas that require attention are illustrated in the succeeding paragraphs.

M-SAR(Maritime Search and Rescue)  While most of the ASEAN nations are signatories to the M-SAR convention[9] despitemultinational efforts, there are still many unanswered questions on how MH 370 disappeared evading all forms of surveillance in the region and has still not been found. As per the records, the aircraft flew over Indonesian territory and was well within the radar coverage of the military radars in the region.It was also speculated that the aircraft could have flown over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands during its southwestern journey towards its crash point. Unfortunately, there is nothing definitive about the reasons for the missing aircraft due to not finding the wreckage or the black box even on date. It is here that ASEAN could take a lead and through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) to work on a model to enhance the surveillance and Search and Rescue architecture keeping in mind the capacity and capability to integrate all the surveillance means available in the region. This hopefully should prevent the kind of situation faced with the disappearance of MH 370.

Illegal Immigration/Human trafficking. For a long time Indonesia was a hub for facilitating the process of illegal immigration to Australia from its shores.   In the recent past, India has also faced the problem of many Sri Lankan Tamil Refugees using the shores of India to sail to Australia in unseaworthy boats. India has foiled many such efforts in Tamil Nadu. However the recent case of about 157 refugees who left the shores of Puducherry have landed up in detention centres in Australia which has toughened its stand against illegal immigration and human trafficking[10].  The countries of ASEAN and India could work on an arrangement to havepreventive measures in place for collective preventive measures to ensure that innocent people are not exploited by the greedy boat owners and syndicates who would make easy money by promising the moon to the poor people who look for greener pastures in Australia, Europe, US and other developed countries.

Marine Pollution.Though there are International Marine Pollution (MARPOL)[11] statutes, the fragile oceanic areas such as the Andaman Sea are prone to marine pollution due to indiscriminate dumping of marine waste by the ships plying the oceans in these areas.  The situation is no different in many parts of the ASEAN seas where human interference and scales of neglect to the environment have resulted in severe impact to the ecological balance of the seas around many areas. There is a need to engage ASEAN on this score to bring about regional checks and balances to retain the delicate balance of nature. The existing C4ISR arrangements of all nations in the area need to be brought to bear to provide seamless coverage of the areas for prevention of the misuse of the water ways and the oceans for illegal purposes.  It could even be a task allocated to the Tri Services command in Andaman and Nicobar to engage in fruitful discussions during the Milan to put forward implementable recommendations for consideration by the ARF and the SE Asian countries. The setting up of the Tri Services command [12]has provided multiple options for centralized application of maritime military strategy for furthering the maritime interests of India.

Anti Piracy Missions. The spate of piracy attacks in the recent months in the Malacca Straits is a matter of grave concern to all the maritime nations who are dependent on the safe passage through such choke points for sustaining and promoting sea borne trade. The statistics brought out by both the Regional Cooperative Agreement against Armed Robbery and Piracy(ReCAAP)[13] and also the Piracy Reporting Centre( Kuala Lumpur) clearly illustrates that  while the menace of piracy in the African waters has seen a dip, the incidents in the South East Asian waters including the Malacca Straits has shown an upward trend . In the past, when faced with a similar situation in the said waters, Lloyds War Committee had declared the entire area as piracy prone and a High Risk Area(HRA), the insurance costs had spiraled and  it took the joint efforts of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to work together to contain the piracy incidents. The efforts that included joint/coordinated patrols, entering the waters of the adjacent country without permission for purposes of hot pursuit, Eyes in the Sky(EiS) which allowed the multin national crew from the concerned countries to be on the aerial platform together to coordinate the activities at sea .  It may be worthwhile to have similar mechanisms involving all the stake holder nations to work through ASEAN to have mechanisms in place for joint and or coordinated operations against pirates.

Defence Production.  Most of the South East Asian countries are increasing their defence spending and are laying greater emphasis on indigenous production.There have also been constant efforts to obtain technology  by offset procedures and transfer of technology options form major arms producers.[14] There also seems to be a desire to be independent of the Chinese influence which in the long run would smother the entire indigenousprogramme if no efforts are made now. The countries in the region are acutely aware of this aspect that would tilt the balance totally in favour of China which is seen as an adversary when it comes to territorial claims in the South China Sea.

As per the estimates, PRC spent more than 145 Bn US Dollars on defence last year (2013). With the conflicting nature of claims particularly in the maritime domain, it appears that there would be no end to even localized armed conflicts.  The SE Asian countries therefore would like to move away from the dependence on Chinese products particularly in the defencesector.Some key imports in the region include two submarines for Singapore from France, Vietnam is e expected to spend 543 million dollars towards augmenting its maritime capability and surveillance means by buying 32 CG ships. Malaysia is building six ships at a cost of 2.8 billion US dollars with DCNS assistance locally to improve the in house capability of building warships. Singapore is also a defence exporter since 1971 when it sold defence hard ware to Malaysia. With the defence budget of the region expected to reach 40 billion dollars by 2016, there would be opportunities for India to engage with these countries to meet their legitimate demands.  It is no secret that these countries are looking at India to balance the influence of China in the region and would like to use the Indian angle as leverage to counter the influence and aggressiveness of China.

 While it is acknowledged that India’s defence production capabilities are no match for the Chinese capacity and capability, there are key areas in which India has a proven track record. India has succeeded in some of the critical sectors of space and Information Technology. There are also many proven defenceproducts including the Brahmos,Stealthships and other missiles produced under the Integrated Missile Development Programme(IGMDP) a brainchild of Scientist Dr Abdul Kalam who retired as the President of India.  India is in a position to offer some of these technologies to these countries   to help the local industry. The GAGAN programme which is being operationlised for providing regional navigation facility could easily be offered to the SE Asian countries. Likewise, while there is engagement in the IT sector, it needs to be fast tracked to synergise the strengths of the nation in the region depending on the USP of each nation of interest.

Conclusion.  The occasion of the thousandth year of celebration of the coronation of King RajendraChola needs to be utilized to reinvent our historical ties with the region that lead to enhanced trade, cultural and religious exchanges which in turn provided those leverages to successive kingdoms in the India to prosper for centuries. The impact and the influence of those passages thousand years ago are still visible today in many of the South East Asian countries. As we visit the past, it is also important to reexamine the relevance of the prescriptions of one of the greatest strategist of ancient India, Chanakya. Foreign policy prescriptions of Arthashastra have not outlived their utility. There may be a need for minor modifications depending on the present day needs.  It is for India under the new Government to revisit the past and move forward to ensure that those days of glory are restored in a new world order. The climate is conducive for such a thrust due to the dynamics of the region which favour India more than China. However, if this opportunity is given the go by, India would have no one else to blame except herself.

[1] Available on the ASEAN web page at

[2] Para 11  -14  ibid

[4] ibid pp v  and xii

[6]Ted Osius,Mohan,C Raja Enhancing India ASEAN Connectivity, CSIS publication Washington 2013 pp16

[8] Scott Jasper, Securing Freedom  in the Global Commons, Stanford University Press, California 2010, pp 75

[12]Sikri Rajiv, Challenges and Strategy, Rethinking India’s Foreign Pollicy,Sage Publications 2009, pp 252

[13] Complete data available in the Annual Report of ReCAAP for 2013-2014 is  available in pdf vide

 14 Collin McInnes, Mark G Rolls, Post Cold War Security Issues in the Asia Pacific Region , Frank Cass n Co, UK pp120-124

(Commodore RS VasanIN(Retd),Director Chennai Center for China Studies and  Head Strategy and Security Studies Center for Asia Studies. email: ,

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