India’s Rise and Future- Southeast Asian Strategic Relations

Session Report
Chaitanya Vivek Deshpande

three-day online certificate training course on India’s G20 Presidency and Contours of Indian Foreign Policy was organized by #IMPRI Centre for International Relation and Strategic Studies (CIRSS)IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi from 14th to 16th March 2023. The third session of day 1 of a three-day immersive online certificate course on India’s G20 Presidency and Contours of Indian Foreign Policy was conducted by Don McLain Gill, Geopolitical Analyst and Author, The Philippines. The subject for this session was India’s Rise and Future- Southeast Asian Strategic Relations. 

The central theme of the session was India’s evolving partnership with Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia is located in Indian understanding within its broader framework to look at the Eastern hemisphere in the international system. Since India’s independence the region has prominently figured in India’s foreign policy calculus. With India’s rise, its accommodation by Southeast Asian countries will grow more inevitably. 

Don McClain put a view that India Southeast Asia relations have been traditionally viewed from the cultural prism. However, the other areas such as defense, economic relations have been facing a rough road. The region’s importance for India lies with its critical geography, diplomatic connectivity, avenues for economic growth and great power competition. India’s attraction to the region in 1990s have been primarily because of the region’s rapid economic growth.  the ties have deepened with mutual goals and shared objectives. India’s cornerstones for the region are ‘Look East Policy’ and ‘Act East Policy.’ ASEAN Centrality remains crucial in both of these frameworks and also in India’s Indo Pacific strategy. 

The region lies in the overlap between traditional US Sphere of Influence and the geographical proximity to China. In such brewing competition between two, the region has limited strategic choices especially in the backdrop of growing US China divergence. India’s rise as an emerging great power on the horizons of multipolar world provide a significant alternative to many countries including Southeast Asian powers to not to fall deeper into the trap of great power competition and continue focusing on own security and economic development. India’s diplomatic heft signifies that how autonomy can help a country to maneuver the complex world. 

The speaker for the session categorized the evolution of India -Southeast Asia relations into five phases of Cold War (1947-1991), the dawn of Look East Policy (1991-2001), the Post 9/11 era (2001-2014), the Establishment of Act East (2014-2018) and the Indo Pacific Framework (2018-onwards).

The cold war era was marked by the US and India perceiving each other on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. Washington’s support to Pakistan and US China Reproachment in 1970s set up the negative tone towards USA in New Delhi. The birth of ASEAN received a lukewarm response from New Delhi in 1967. Pakistan’s involvement into SEATO despite not being a Southeast Asian state raised concerns for India. Also, Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia didn’t go well with India. Thus, in the cold war era, both sides were less aware about each other and there was limited scope to improve the relations because of the nature of international system. 

In the second phase of the relations, the post-cold war atmosphere played a critical role. India had begun its economic reforms in 1990s. Its chief strategic partner, USSR went behind the curtains of history. India USA relations saw some positive inclinations. This period saw the early growth of cooperation between India and Southeast Asian countries in a multifaceted area. Singapore played a critical role in declaring India as an important strategic partner for the region especially India’s inclusion into ASEAN Regional Forum and as a Dialogue partner. India’s inclusion is mainly seen as a counterweight to rising China.

India also incorporated members of ASEAN into BIMSTEC, IORA and Mekong Ganga Cooperation. However, the economic engagements between Indian and Southeast Asian economies were limited. The Look East policy which was expected to increase the trade and investments from Indian side actually could not improvise the situation much. Limited diplomatic connectivity, less business opportunities hampered the possibility of greater economic engagement. 

In the third phase, the Post 9/11 era, experienced the US China competition. China started its power projection in the Southeast Asia especially after the 2008 crisis. Meanwhile USA’s affirmation to India as a trusted strategic partner and a crucial power for Asia’s stability played a significant role to improve the India-Southeast Asia relations. Indian Navy also escorted US ships across the Straits of Malacca during this phase.

USA’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, increasing activity in South China Sea (SCS) and frequent LAC incursions on Indian borders by Chinese side shaped the relations during 2001 to 2014. During the period, India became summit level dialogue partner. A clear roadmap of relations were drawn in 2005 with the signing of ASEAN India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity. The relations were turned into a Strategic Partnership in 2012.  It was Hillary Clinton, the then Secretary of State under Bill Clinton had suggested India to ‘act East.’

Don McLain explains that in the fourth phase of the Establishment of Act East Policy continued the element of economic cooperation between two regions. The Act East Policy added the emphasis on defense and strategic, political angles more than its predecessor, the Look East Policy. Act East Policy acts as a catalyst to craft a formidable, forward-looking response, major power-driven policies for external engagement. It builds India’s role as a responsible development partner, capacity builder and security provider. ASEAN Centrality is at the heart of these efforts. 

India’s rise is not only the result of structural multipolarity as traditional explanations go, but it deliberately perceived itself as a rising great power. India has the first-hand experience of managing diversity, development and security. This provides India leverage to project itself as a successful model for global leadership, especially in the eastern hemisphere and the developing world. It plays a proactive role as a major stakeholder in international rule-based order.

The geopolitical churning in this order with the decline of US influence in the western pacific and the increasing heft of the China led to convergence of interests between India and Southeast Asia. India established a separate mission to ASEAN in 2015. Also, it has been more vocal about the security issues in South China Sea.

In these emerging dynamics, the rise of Indo Pacific framework remains crucial for the foreign policies of both India and Southeast Asian states. The important objective of both is to safeguard their own interests not to fall deeper into the great power binary competition between USA and China. 

In this context, the partnership between India and ASEAN was elevated to the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership from Strategic Partnership. Capacity building efforts by India in Vietnam, Myanmar and Philippines has also been increasing. India is seen as very mature and balanced power in ASEAN countries. Increasing maritime drills by Indian Navy around the ASEAN countries are symbolic of the evolving security and strategic relations between the two.

Despite these developments, the State of Southeast Asia Report highlights that public opinion about India remains limited compared to US, Japan and China. Many people believe that India lacks the political will to engage with the region in long term because of its preoccupation with its immediate neighborhood. The regional economic cooperation has also been limited. In coming times, India needs a consistent effort to harness the positive image it has in the region. 

Chaitanya is a Research Intern at IMPRI.

Read more session reports from Day 1 of India’s G20 Presidency and Contours of Indian Foreign Policy:

India’s Digital Public Diplomacy And Brand Building – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute (impriindia.com)

Contours Of India’s Foreign Policy In The Current Era – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute (impriindia.com)