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India Looks East

The heads of nine of the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations traveled to New Delhi two weeks ago to celebrate 20 years of ties between their organization and India. At the two-day “Commemorative Summit,” ASEAN leaders toasted Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and signed a free-trade pact covering services and investment with his country.

The events in New Delhi, ostensibly about friendly relations among the participants, were also about one country not a part of the festivities. China, not a member of ASEAN, haunts its members these days with aggressive actions in the region, especially in the South China Sea, which Beijing believes is an internal Chinese lake. Moreover, China claims large portions of territory under Indian control and continually probes the areas with its troops and sometimes aircraft.

So Beijing has been pushing ASEAN and India into each other’s arms. New Delhi, for two decades, has been pursuing a “Look East” policy. Now, Southeast Asia is reciprocating. 

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The delicate and increasingly tense China-India rivalry is reflected in the countries’ military preparations, alliances, and diplomatic maneuvering with neighbors and world powers alike.

Progress in building ties has not always been evident. ASEAN and India took years to negotiate a free-trade agreement in goods, which went into effect as late as 2010. Yet when Beijing went on a foreign policy bender later that year, ties between New Delhi and ASEAN developed fast. The services and investment pact, which Singh called “transformational” during the recent summit, was put together in record time.

The Chinese peer warily at warming relations between New Delhi and any other capital, but especially those on their periphery. And Beijing has cards to play. China’s dominance of its region is highlighted by the flow of commerce. Last year, China’s two-way trade with ASEAN amounted to a staggering $363 billion. The organization’s trade with India, by way of contrast, was just $79 billion.

India and ASEAN, however, have high hopes. As Singh said at the summit, ASEAN-India trade will exceed $100 billion by 2015 and $200 billion in 10 years. Those goals appear within reach, but they would still leave China as the leading trade partner in the region.

And Beijing appears to be angling for new forms of global commercial leverage. For example, the proposed 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, as currently designed, will become the world’s largest free-trade bloc, representing some 40 percent of global commerce. Given that the US is not now in the proposed grouping, China will be the regional partnership’s leading economic power. Moreover, China is not shy about applying military pressure on New Delhi. China’s naval and troop maneuvers on India’s borders, and its support of Pakistani terrorists, are ongoing reminders of its willingness to play the military card to encourage India to tread softly.  

“We see our partnership with ASEAN not merely as a reaffirmation of ties with neighboring countries or as an instrument of economic development, but also as an integral part of our vision of a stable, secure and prosperous Asia and its surrounding Indian Ocean and Pacific regions,” Singh said on the first day of the summit.

The words of the Indian prime minister seem unexceptional, but observers saw them as a subtle acknowledgement that his country’s trade with ASEAN had strategic implications. And when Indians think geopolitics these days, they do so with one rather large neighbor in mind. That would be China.

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