India, South by Southeast

New Delhi is hosting a summit to mark the 20th anniversary of relations between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Though financial constraints led to the summit’s budget being slashed, nine heads of government still made it to Delhi. It was a significant gesture that so many leaders made it to India.

This summit in effect was designed to crown India’s tortuous Look East policy. And it produced a tangible result in the India in the form of the services trade agreement, the so called eight plus one plus one agreement. The ones are Indonesia and the Philippines who carved out special trade deals for themselves.
So where does the Look East policy stand today?
India began the policy largely as a rhetorical device in 1992, to show it was going to try and spend a bit more time looking at the region. India had just opened up its economy, but it struggled to harmonise its tariffs and policies with those of the much more advanced ASEAN economies. Look East and then Look Away, was how some Southeast Asians derided it.

But it is a lot more than that today. What happened?

The first was that India’s economy took off and impressed at least Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Now others have joined the club.

The second was that diplomatically India began to actually integrate with the region, joining the Asean Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and in a few places actually being active in the sessions.

The third, less noticed, was that these original Asian tiger economies began to see their stripes fade.
Higher labour cost, weak domestic entrepreneurs and fierce China compeition made countries like Malaysia loose competitiveness. India was wooed as an alternative source of investment and even entrepreneurship.

Finally, the rise of China tested the ability of ASEAN to be the linchpin of Asia’s security. This increasingly brought in India, given its nilitary capabilities.

So what’s missing? The most obvious gap is physical. There is little or no connectivity between India and Southeast Asia. A rickety road from Myanmar, no rail links and even poor sea lanes — eastern India has few ports of consequence. The other lacunae is depth. The military, political and even the conomic ties are fractions of what ASEAN countries have with, say, Australia let alone China. India’s engagement with individual countries is varied: plenty with Singapore, little with Cambodia and surprisingly little with Indonesia.

Finally, India’s worldview is slightly off from that of Singapore, the country that sees itself as the region’s brain trust. The latter has sought to produce a multilateral framework to bind Asia together. India increasingly sees the elements of a big country balance of power emerging in Asia.

Southeast Asin countries are not sure what to do with India. It doesn’t quite touch the high watermark in any single way. It’s a big cultural influence but has added little in the past few centuries. Its economy starts and sputters so much that it is never the number one or two partner for any country, let alone a match to China.

India, in my view, needs to do something big in the region to distinguish itself it from all the rest. One idea is arms control. As one Indian official once noted, Asia Pacific is in the grip of a slow motion arms race that is exacerbated by the policy secrecy in many of these countries. Perhaps it is time for a major push to etablish India’s credentials in diplomacy and benefit its own interests as well.

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