February 14, 2021The Intersectiongeopolitics

India must address South East Asian concerns

India’s foreign policy establishment must not miss opportunities to set up economic and maritime cooperation with ASEAN

India’s foreign policy establishment must not miss opportunities to set up economic and maritime cooperation with ASEAN

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

An annual survey of Southeast Asia’s policy elite throws up three striking findings. First, despite being both the most influential power in Southeast Asia and providing the most help to ASEAN countries during the covid pandemic, China is increasingly distrusted in the region. Second, despite its insignificant political, strategic and economic influence in the region and posing little threat to any country, most respondents do not have confidence that India will do the right thing” to contribute to peace, security, prosperity and governance. Third, a mere change of guard in Washington has turned around the region’s view of the United States, which is now looked towards with greater confidence and positivity.

ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute’s recently released third The State of Southeast Asia: 2021 survey makes for sobering reading and a reality check for India’s foreign policy establishment. As much as we have persuaded ourselves of the success of three decades of Look East and Act East policies, India’s strategic imprint in the region—at least as seen by the region’s policy elite—is insignificant.

To be sure, the survey might not be representative of overall public opinion and is perhaps more reflective of the Association of South East Asian Nations elite’s disdainful view of transparent, raucous democracies. Even so, it constitutes negative feedback (which is the desirable kind) and is invaluable in understanding how New Delhi’s policies must change if Look East/Act East is to yield better dividends for India’s national interest.

The perception of China leaves no doubt that Southeast Asia’s elite have a clear-eyed, astute view of what China’s rise means: They see it as a revisionist power that intends to extend its hegemony over the region. That is why its pandemic diplomacy did not buy it any greater affection. As concerned as they are about China’s massive influence over the region and their own domestic affairs, the challenge for every ASEAN country remains what to do about it. Paeans to ASEAN solidarity are either cheap talk or fervent hopes, as the divide between those who benefit from jumping onto the Beijing bandwagon and those zealous about their sovereign interests stands in the way of ASEAN speaking in one voice. So its real choices are either getting the United States to be more interested in the region or reaching out to other powers that can help resist China’s hegemony.

Compared to the previous year, the preference for aligning with the United States rose from around 54% to 62%, while that for seeking out third parties declined from about 15% to 12%. If ASEAN had to choose third parties”, the preferred partners are the EU and Japan, with around 40% support each. Preference for India declined slightly to under 7%. Given that neither the EU nor Japan have committed serious military power to the region, it appears that the ASEAN elite see economic power and upholding a rules-based international order as the main criteria in their choice of outside powers. As much as this is in keeping with the political culture of Southeast Asia, it is unclear if the EU and Japan can protect the interests of South East Asian countries if Beijing’s pushes become shoves, as is increasingly the case.

It is when we set India’s recent economic policy choices and ASEANs strong preference for geoeconomic engagement that we see our problem in sharp relief. The region does not have confidence in India’s free trade credentials. Fewer than 1% of respondents expressed any, amid greater overall concerns over rising protectionism and nationalism. In last year’s survey, over half the respondents felt that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will be worse off without India, with a majority seeing India’s exit from the trading bloc as damaging India-ASEAN relations. As I have consistently argued in this column, India’s geo-political influence tracks its economic trajectory. If India’s economic growth turns inward and does not create opportunities for other countries, our influence on the rest of the world will decline.

The silver lining is that ASEAN confidence in India doing the right thing” has improved slightly in the 2021 survey after declining the previous year. Perceptions of India as a responsible stakeholder that respects international law have gone up significantly, and there is a marginal improvement in the manner the region sees India’s military power. However, it is the pessimistic view of India that reigns, arising from a sense that India is pre-occupied with its domestic and subcontinental affairs, and that it does not have the capacity and will for global leadership. To change this, New Delhi must scale up both economic engagement and maritime power projection east of Malacca. The positive sentiment toward the Quad that last year’s survey revealed is another channel that New Delhi can invest in.

Finally, when it comes to soft power, we have perhaps convinced ourselves of its influence more than it actually influences others. Fewer than 1% of respondents select India as the preferred country for higher education or tourism. Last year, only 2% selected Hindi as most useful and beneficial language for professional development. On these counts, India comes last, far behind the West, Japan, China, and Korea, although one in five pro-India respondents agree that their political culture and worldview are compatible with India’s. The image is fine, the reality needs work.

There are many more The Intersection columns here

Averages conceal. There are important differences among individual countries’ perceptions, many of which are unexpected. The report merits a detailed study by New Delhi’s foreign policy establishment and, indeed, urgent course corrections.



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