How central is ASEAN’s centrality?
You could be forgiven for thinking that promiscuity is the defining principle of Indian foreign policy. From the arms of the Quad to the BRICS via the “I2U2 Quad”; from ASEAN to the G-7, from the Commonwealth and G-20 to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – New Delhi is either spoiled for choice or a geopolitical thief.
The truth is that it is neither. The shuffling of global politics has meant a number of things – a growing distaste for and irrelevance of traditional multilateralism, new plurilateral formations that focus on narrow interests, traditional norms of trade and investment upended by new realities. Geopolitics plays a bigger role in geoeconomics. Post-Cold War globalization is fading into new shades of economic nationalism. The “L-1” economy, which has seen the phenomenal rise of China and other low-cost countries, is gradually being replaced by “reliable value chains”. Donald Trump, the Covid pandemic and the Russian-Ukrainian war – in that order – were major milestones in this ongoing transformation of the world order.
Despite the Russo-Ukrainian war and the revival of the Euro-Atlantic idea, the Indo-Pacific is by far the most important geostrategic concept of the 21st century, with the Quad at its heart. In the mists of its “strategic autonomy”, New Delhi repeatedly asserts its place and orientation in the Indo-Pacific, and this has become the core of its foreign policy.
The key aspect of the Quad, which many miss, is this: it is not just a forum for balancing Chinese hegemony, it aims to write new rules of the road, technologies, cybersecurity, critical minerals, from maritime domain awareness, to the international economy. provisions. The most recent offering – Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) – is a similar step, an attempt to define more flexible rules of economic engagement, aligned with political realities.
Russia refuses to think about the Indo-Pacific or the Quad beyond berating India for joining. China takes it seriously, partly because it sees itself as the target and partly because Beijing wants its own stamp on the new rules of the road. But ASEAN? The group of 10 members displays a strange carelessness. Economically dominated by China, it seems to have lulled itself into believing that the Indo-Pacific was some sort of fad.
As ASEAN and India concluded a fairly low-key dialogue in Delhi last week to mark 30 years of diplomatic relations, the mantra of “ASEAN centrality” may be wearing thin. This is ritually repeated by all countries in the Indo-Pacific context largely to reassure ASEAN. ASEAN’s own perspectives underline this, describing ASEAN’s centrality as “the underlying principle for promoting cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, with ASEAN-led mechanisms, such as the ASEAN Summit”. Asia (EAS), as Indo-Pacific Platforms for Dialogue and Implementation”. Pacific Cooperation, while preserving their formats.
Co-Chair of the ASEAN-India Ministerial Meeting, Vivian Balakrishnan of Singapore did not use the words “Indo-Pacific” once in her remarks at the June 16 event.
China has found its own way around the idea of ASEAN centrality, eliminating members and preventing consensus. He delayed ASEAN. The Quad too, especially with AUKUS and IPEF. In fact, ASEAN’s voice in regional affairs is remarkably muted – China has already established illegal sovereignty over the South China Sea islands, and if China acts in Taiwan, no one really knows how. ASEAN could react. Instead, ASEAN prefers to stay with economic partnerships.
“Trade and investment is a strategy that is our part of the world,” Balakrishnan observed accurately. RCEP remains the great success and is dominated by China. India’s withdrawal undermined the arrangement in more ways than one. The CPTPP lacks most of the world’s largest economies – not China, not the United States, not India. If the IPEF gains momentum, it could sit above existing trade agreements, particularly because it addresses issues and sectors not covered by the RCEP or the CPTPP, a more flexible set of plurilateral trade agreements, some overlapping, some not.
An overwhelming sense from ASEAN persists that if countries could just trade with each other, all would be well. The US-China rivalry, they argue, is primarily an economic concern. The India-China conflict receives much less attention. It may be reshaping India’s strategic trajectory, but ASEAN simply doesn’t see China like India. It is creating distance. The uncomfortable fact is that China has quietly done in the South China Sea and eastern Ladakh what Russia is doing with missiles in Ukraine – violating a rules-based order. This connection is somehow missed.
India is engaging new partners in the ASEAN region, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, moving away from Singapore, its traditional best friend. The progress report is uneven, but the intention is there. For India’s traditional partners like Singapore, this should be a moment of reflection.
Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar was trying to push ASEAN in the direction that India envisioned. “As the world moves towards greater rebalancing, multipolarity and globalization, India and ASEAN will need to consider what this means for their relationship. To reduce risks to the global economy, they can be partners in building reliable and resilient supply chains. To ensure a secure digital existence, they can collaborate to promote trust and transparency. Among themselves and with others, they can also contribute to the well-being of the undivided world, in particular through respect for international law.These are the relevant bridges of our time.
ASEAN will inevitably have to take sides.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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