India, South by Southeast

New Delhi is hosting a summit to mark the 20th anniversary of relations between India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Though the summit’s budget was slashed due to financial constraints, nine heads of government still made it to Delhi. It was a significant gesture that so many leaders made it to India.

The summit, in effect, was designed to crown India’s torturous “Look East” policy. And it produced a tangible result in India in the form of the services trade agreement, the so-called “eight plus one plus one” agreement. (The “one”s are Indonesia and the Philippines, who carved out special trade deals for themselves.)

Indian introduced the policy largely as a rhetorical device in 1992, to show it was going to try and spend a bit more time looking at the region. India had just opened up its economy, but it struggled to harmonize its tariffs and policies with those of the much more advanced ASEAN economies. “Look East and then Look Away,” was how some Southeast Asians derided it.

But it is a lot more than that today. What happened?

First, India’s economy took off and impressed at least Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia; now others have joined the club. Second, India began to diplomatically integrate with the region, joining the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, and actually participating in the sessions. Third, and less noticed than the previous two points, the stripes of the original Asian tiger economies began to fade. Higher labor costs, weak domestic entrepreneurship and fierce competition from China made countries like Malaysia lose competitiveness. India was wooed as an alternative source of investment and entrepreneurship. Finally, China’s rise tested ASEAN’s ability to be the linchpin of Asia’s security. This increasingly brought in India, given its military capabilities.

So what’s missing? The most obvious gap is physical. There is little or no connectivity between India and Southeast Asia. A rickety road from Myanmar, no rail links and even poor sea lanes — eastern India has few ports of consequence. The other lacunae is depth. The military, political and even the economic ties are fractions of what ASEAN countries have with, say, Australia, let alone China. India’s engagement with individual countries is varied: plenty with Singapore, little with Cambodia, and surprisingly little with Indonesia. Finally, India’s worldview is slightly off from Singapore’s, the country that sees itself as the region’s brain trust. The latter has sought to produce a multilateral framework to bind Asia together. India increasingly sees the elements of a big country balance of power emerging in Asia.

Southeast Asian countries are not sure what to do with India. It doesn’t quite touch the high watermark in any single way. It’s a big cultural influence but has added little in the past few centuries. Its economy starts and sputters so much that it is never the number one or two partner for any country, let alone a match to China.

India, in my view, needs to do something big in the region to distinguish itself from all the rest. One idea is arms control. As one Indian official once noted, the Asia Pacific is in the grip of a slow motion arms race that is exacerbated by policy secrecy in many of these countries. Perhaps it is time for a major push to establish India’s credentials in diplomacy and benefit its own interests as well.

Copyright © 2012 the Hindustan Times.

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