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India’s Role in the Strategic Architecture of Southeast Asia

The strategic importance of Southeast Asia has risen substantially in recent years. Power politics is influencing that region in a significant manner. In my presentation, I propose to highlight the nature of strategic environment prevailing in South East Asia. My second point will relate to the required response from India to that environment.

China is playing an important role in South East Asia with its development interest as driving force. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has performed very well in South East Asia in the economic front. It has been particularly successful in establishing close trade ties with ASEAN. Well-known are the China-ASEAN free trade agreement signed in 2010 and its participation in a lot of sub-regional cooperation arrangements. On the contrary, in the military, territorial and resources fronts, China’s policies are giving rise to conflicts between it and other regional nations. The regional assertiveness of China is a well-talked about subject now.  Why China is showing territorial assertiveness in the region, has become a key question for analysts. In my view, we should first look into the traditional mindset of the Chinese on the territorial aspect. The mindset is well-rooted in their “Tian Xia” (Under the Heaven) concept which views all territories as belonging to the Chinese Emperor, who is the son of heaven.  Under its influence, the Chinese, traditionally, attach no sense to territory. During the first panel discussion, there was a mention of such historical and philosophical aspects of the Chinese civilization.

In the modern era, the Tian Xia concept is manifesting in the Chinese not showing any hesitation to claim other territories which they believe as belonging to their country. A prominent example is the U –shaped curve which China has drawn, rather unilaterally, to claim vast territories in South China Sea. The result is emergence and continuation of serious sea territory conflicts between China on one hand and Southeast Asian nations on the other.  To buttress its claim, China is projecting its force and this is causing fears in countries like Vietnam, the Philippines etc.

Having traced the China factor in South East Asia strategic situation, we should consider another equally big phenomenon – the US role in the region. Both the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama have declared that the ‘US is back in Asia’. It is evident that the US strategic focus is shifting from the Middle East to East Asia. Washington has been able to inject fresh vigor into its “alliance” relationship with Japan and South Korea; with other ‘partners’ like Singapore, the US has been successful in cementing strategic relations. The emerging US-Vietnam relations and Washington’s growing interest in Indonesia are also worth noting. There are fundamental positional differences between the US and China, which affect the strategic situation in South East Asia. The US stand that the case of the disputed Senkaku Island comes under the jurisdiction of US-Japan security treaty, is being considered as a serious challenge by Beijing. A second example is the US contention that the South China Sea islands dispute should be solved by multilateral efforts. China strongly opposes the same with its counter point that the issue should be solved bilaterally.

A third factor concerning the South East Asia strategic situation relates to intra-ASEAN differences on vital issues. While there is a general expectation in Southeast Asia to have the US as a security guarantor in order to counter the rising Chinese influence, certain regional powers are ambivalent on this account.  They want the presence of both China and the US in the region. Their economic and trade dependence on China could be a reason for the same. Secondly, there seems to be no sound mechanism in Southeast Asia to deal with issues like Thailand-Cambodia border problem. All of you are aware that the two nations are involved in a fight over a border area where a famous Hindu-Buddhist temple is situated. Other cases involve the continuing Malaysia-Indonesia sea boundary problem and existence of  divisions among ASEAN nations on the suitability of Myanmar to take over the rotational chairmanship of the ASEAN this year. In all, Southeast Asia is still not a homogenous entity.

Basically, India’s strategic challenge in Southeast Asia comes from China. Beijing has reservations on India playing a leading role in the East Asian integration process. We have to remove China’s doubts, maybe through bilateral dialogue. We should understand the nature of economic, political and security perceptions of China which motivate Beijing to look upon India, Australia and New Zealand as “outsiders” to formation of an East Asian order. Our second option should be to build firm bridges with ASEAN nations which all welcome India’s participation. The ASEAN-China free trade pact provides more advantageous terms to the regional nations than what India’s recently signed similar pact does. The “services” sector is still outside the purview of India-ASEAN FTA.. India needs to bridge this gap. Also, India can offer assistance to East Asian nations in building capabilities to protect the sea lanes of communication. There is also tremendous scope for India’s cooperation with Southeast Asian nations in the non-traditional security field.

(Courtesy – College of Defence Management. The above is the text of presentation made on the subject by Mr D S Rajan at a Seminar organised by the College of Defence Management on ‘India’s role in the Strategic Architecture of West and Southeast Asia held at Secunderabad on 20 July 2011)

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