India will host ASEAN leaders as its chief guests during the commemoration of the country's 69th Republic Day on 26 January, reflecting the importance New Delhi places on relations with South East Asia.
India's much-vaunted Look East policy, launched in the early 1990s as part of a concerted reorientation and re-engagement with South East Asia, was renamed the Act East policy by the Narendra Modi government in 2014 to signal a more proactive approach towards the region. The upcoming India–ASEAN Commemorative Summit will mark 25 years of the dialogue partnership, 15 years of the summit-level relationship, and five years of strategic partnership between India and ASEAN.
The Look East/Act East policy has proven surprisingly robust given the political and broader structural developments since its launch. India has experienced a broad range of governments in that time, but despite their varying ideological orientations all of these administrations have continued to embrace the policy and the tenet of "ASEAN centrality".
At the structural level, the collapse of the Soviet Union and India's foreign exchange crisis in 1991 prompted the country to embrace economic liberalisation and further reach out to the dynamic "tiger" economies of East Asia. This was followed by the rise of China as an increasingly prominent regional actor that became central to regional supply-chains and transnational production networks. But again, despite these shifts, India has maintained the importance of South East Asia as part of its eastward engagement.
What has grounded India's adherence to the principle of ASEAN centrality in the context of its Look East/Act East policy? The answer is China. During key moments in the India–ASEAN relationship, there has been an underlying focus on Chinese actions in the region, including:
- India's admission to the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1996 after its frustration at not being admitted at its founding two years earlier, at the same time as China.
- New Delhi's accession to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and commencement of free trade negotiations with ASEAN in 2003, shortly after China did the same.
- India's admission as a founding member of the East Asia Summit in 2005, serving to dilute China's presence.
- The growing emphasis on strategic cooperation, particularly in the maritime domain, where China has demonstrated increasingly assertive behaviour over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
These developments indicate that ever-present in India's engagement with South East Asia is an underlying desire to keep up with or emulate China and prevent the emergence of a Sino-centric regional order. Even the very origins of the Look East policy can be linked to latent anxiety over Beijings's diplomatic inroads into South East Asia. This came amid concerns shared by China and ASEAN over Vietnamese aggression following its invasion of Kampuchea (Cambodia) in 1978, which contrasted with India's support for Hanoi through its recognition of the Vietnamese-installed Heng Samrin regime in Phnom Penh in 1980.
External developments have reaffirmed the relevance of the "China factor" in India's engagement with ASEAN. The end of the Cold War prompted concerns that the erstwhile superpowers' rivalry would be replaced by an emerging competition between regional powers; namely Japan, China and India. This made South East Asian states more amenable to reaching out to India.
During the first decade of the policy, India was relegated in the eyes of South East Asian states to a secondary status among regional powers due to its limited actions made, relative to China, to stave off the contagion effect of foreign capital outflows and depreciating currencies during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. This led to the emergence of new regional forums that excluded India, such as the ASEAN+3 and Chiang Mai Initiative, a currency swap agreement.
At the same time, ASEAN's relatively muted response to India's nuclear tests in 1998 reflected concern over China's growing power and regional influence, and demonstrated India's importance to the regional architecture. ASEAN's late-1990s expansion to include the states of the Indochina subregion (Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam) also brought the Sino-Indian relationship into more acute focus as ASEAN came to border both India and China.
The second decade of the Look East policy saw the rapprochement of Indian relations with the US and Japan, countries that share not only historically difficult and at times adversarial relations with China but also India's support for ASEAN centrality in the regional architecture. These developments have been a catalyst for strengthening the relevance of the China factor in the context of India's engagement with ASEAN.
To be sure, public statements continue to make little if any mention of China in the context of the India–ASEAN relationship; what little is said generally paints China's role in largely benign terms. But there has been gradual change on this point as the Modi government seeks to develop a more assertive foreign policy that includes challenging China on its assertive regional behaviour.
Nonetheless, it would be a fallacy to claim that the China factor has only gained relevance under the Modi government. Rather, it can be traced to the very origins of the Look East policy and lies at the heart of India's continued commitment to ASEAN centrality as a core principle of its eastward engagement.
There are recent signs that India's regional engagement is increasingly transcending ASEAN. India is now a party to growing numbers of bilateral, trilateral, and mini-lateral engagements, as evidenced by recent efforts to revive the short-lived Quadrilateral initiative. South East Asia's economies are also diminishing in importance as engines of regional growth.
Despite this, India still has an incentive to keep ASEAN in the driver's seat of the regional architecture, instead of an alternative arrangement dominated by other major powers (notably China). As Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj noted in 2017, the "centrality of ASEAN serves as a counterbalance to the various great power concerts and rivalries that get played out in the region".
In this context, India's ASEAN commitment reflects an ambition to create a bulwark against the emergence of a Sino-centric regional order. While the agenda for the upcoming India–ASEAN Commemorative Summit will be dominated by discussions on counterterrorism, connectivity and culture, China will undoubtedly be the elephant (or dragon) in the room.