Economics and strategy are linked: will India keep its eastern promises? That question assumes a new importance in the wake of news that China has deployed missiles on Woody Island in the South China Sea. That news came soon before the three-day ASEAN-India Delhi Dialogue started on February 17, and shortly before the ASEAN meeting hosted by the US in Sunnylands ended. Reports a few days later, on February 23, stated that recent satellite images showed that China could be installing a high-frequency radar system in the Spratly Islands that could significantly boost its ability control the disputed South China Sea
China’s latest challenges to maritime security, and claims by Vietnam and Taiwan to Woody Island, will only increase the concern of India and its Asian friends about the freedom and security of international sea lanes including the South China Sea. The Asia-Pacific is of strategic and economic import for India, which favors negotiated settlements where there are overlapping maritime claims. Since September 2014, New Delhi has supported Washington’s position on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Speaking at the Delhi Dialogue External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj pointed out that maritime security was essential for India’s economy as most of its global trade flows across the straits of Malacca and beyond. International waters, including the South China Sea, are routes to India’s prosperity and security.
China’s provocative act explained why security is one three pillars of the tie between ASEAN and India – the other two are economics and culture. In early February, Indian Vice-President Hamid Ansari’s visit to Thailand and Brunei saw the upgrading of India’s defense ties with those countries. The agreements resonated with the wish of India, Japan, Australia Singapore Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei and the US to expand military collaboration and uphold maritime freedom and safety in the South China Sea.
Looking and acting east since the end of the Cold War in 1991, India has broadened and deepened its economic and political engagement with East Asia. In 2002 the first ASEAN-India summit was held in Pnom Penh, and in 2005 India was a founding member of the East Asia summit. ASEAN and India have set up mechanisms to deal with security, science, trade and environmental issues.
The economic importance of the Asia-Pacific for India is also reflected in its ambition to join APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) Closer engagement with East Asia could give India access to the region’s rich energy resources, attract investment from the area and enhance India’s strategic clout in global and regional forums.
India has a strong interest in expanding trade with ASEAN countries, investing freely in East Asia and increasing people-to-people contacts. Seeking investments in infrastructure, manufacturing, trade, agriculture, skill development and urban renewal India is urging ASEAN to participate in its major development projects including “Make in India”, “Digital India”, “Skill India” and “Smart Cities”.
Connectivity and people-to-people contacts were stressed at the Delhi Dialogue in the context of the building of a road linking India with Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. Connectivity and strategic interests are intertwined: that planned highway could have its strategic significance: as a counter of sorts to China’s Silk Road.
Strategic interests count because India, its Asian friends and the US are all threatened by China’s growing military power and expansionism. That is why India is strengthening military cooperation with many East Asian countries. India’s participation in joint naval drills has been welcomed by ASEAN countries, who perceive India as helping them to challenge and counter China’s predatory tendencies. In fact, in the autumn of 2014 New Delhi defied Beijing by signing an agreement with Hanoi to explore oil resources in Vietnamese waters and by extending credit to Vietnam to enable it to buy naval vessels to strengthen its defenses in areas claimed by China.
China’s economic progress does not threaten Asia; it has strong trading ties with Asian countries and the U.S. It is the bellicosity of China’s nationalism that has sounded the alarm about China’s increased defense spending, diplomatic and economic influence. The list of assertive Chinese moves has been growing in recent years: it has staked claims to the territories of several neighboring countries – including India. So the U.S., India, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines are anxious to counter China militarily. Beijing has done nothing to dispel their fears about its expansionist intentions.
In November 2013 China stunned Japan, South Korea and the U.S. when it unilaterally announced a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over a contested maritime area in the East China Sea overlapping with the already existing Japanese ADIZ. Beijing demanded that military or civilian foreign planes report flight paths through the zone to China. Refusing to obey China’s call the US has continued to send military flights through the zone. Last October and in January this year American naval ships sailed past international waters claimed by China. Nevertheless reports of Chinese missiles in Woody Island seem to have taken the US and China’s neighbors by surprise.
The reports worry New Delhi since Indian companies are involved in oil and gas exploration projects in the South China Sea. China has opposed India’s involvement in the projects.
India’s strategic role in East Asia will be shaped by four important factors.
First, an anti-China alliance is not on the cards, if only because ASEAN is divided on how to deal with the Chinese threat. China is also a member of the East Asia summit and APEC.
Second, India cannot take the US for granted. American policy in the Asia-Pacific could affect India’s efforts to strengthen its military ties with East Asian countries. This is partly because the strength of America’s pivot to Asia is uncertain. So question marks hang over the effectiveness of the ‘rebalance’ to Asia – especially in the context of Woody Island – and in a presidential year, about the Asian strategy of the post-Obama administration.
Third, American troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, whose stability is vital to India, remain on Washington’s agenda and Kabul is finding it ever harder to keep the Taliban at bay. Instability in Afghanistan will foment insecurity in Pakistan which could create a spillover in Indian Kashmir. India would then be preoccupied with its South Asian neighbors. Could that slow down the growth of India’s economic and strategical ties with East Asia?
Fourth, the enhancement of India’s Asian security profile cannot mask the fact that India’s presence in East Asia can only be enlarged through economic progress. Contrary to what Sushma Swaraj said at the Delhi Dialogue, the relationship between India and ASEAN is not anchored in ‘deep and abiding historical and civilizational links.’ Ancient cultural ties – the third pillar of the ASEAN-India relationship – are symbolised by the spread, centuries ago, of Buddhism from India to East Asia. And there have since long been Indian communities in East Asian countries. But India has never had much economic and political influence in the region. To some extent its economic weakness explains why.
In the 1950s India’s economy was on a par with many East Asian economies but it was surpassed in the 1960s by Japan and South Korea. India’s rank – 130 – in the latest Human Development Index is lower than that of Japan (20), South Korea (17), Singapore (11), Brunei 31, Malaysia (62) the Philippines (115) Indonesia (110) amd China (90). Two-way trade between India and ASEAN currently stands at around $77 billion a year. That amount pales beside the fact that China-ASEAN trade was $ 443 billion in 2013. And China aims to elevate bilateral trade with ASEAN to one trillion U.S. dollars by 2020.
India and its East Asian friends have a long way to go. As during the Cold War the US sees democratic India as the main counterpoise to authoritarian China but that promise has yet to be fulfilled.
The ball is in India’s court. In the long run it is India’s own increased investments in education, infrastructure and more equitable development that will polish its credentials as a key driver of the global economy – and as an increasingly central contributor to Asian and international security in the 21st century.