Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Unprecedented in India's history, leaders of all 10 ASEAN members on Friday attended the country's 69th Republic Day parade as chief guests. The gathering of the leaders of the group is regarded as showing India's implementation of its Act East policy and Indo-Pacific strategy.
The close ties between India and ASEAN are the outcome of both sides' strategic considerations. As for the strategic triangle of China, India and ASEAN, India has contradictions with China over border dispute, India-Pakistan relations and the Dalai Lama, which are not likely to end in a short period of time. Moreover, India all the time likes to compare its international standing with China.
India always refers to China when talking about development. According to its Nonalignment 2.0 report, the only general objective of India's Asia-Pacific strategy is to develop itself to achieve parity with China. Therefore, China and India inevitably sank into a game of influence.
All of China's moves, such as its all-weather strategic partnership with Pakistan, infrastructure construction in Southwest China, participation in the construction of the Gwadar port in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Sittwe in Myanmar, are regarded by India as the so-called "String of Pearls" that aims to encircle India and limit its global clout.
The ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit marking the 25th anniversary of their dialogue last week is also intended to target China. At the summit, India and ASEAN agreed to establish a mechanism "for greater cooperation in the maritime domain sector" and India has showcased itself to the group as an alternative to China.
ASEAN improves its ties with India out of strategic consideration to balance China's influence in Southeast Asia as India is regarded as the counterweight to reduce uncertainty brought about by the rise of China. New Delhi's Act East policy coincides with ASEAN's Act West strategy. ASEAN and India getting closer is similar to firms diversifying business to reduce risk. Therefore, the attendance of the 10 ASEAN nations' leaders in the parade does not mean that the group leans toward India.
From a strategic perspective, we must clearly recognize that ASEAN and India cooperate mainly to achieve power balance. The last thing ASEAN wants to do is publicly side with a major power. While ASEAN is outmatched militarily and economically by powers in the Asia-Pacific region, such as India and China, the most favorable scenario for the group is to keep good relations with both powers as the two bigger countries engage in conflicts.
ASEAN is highly concerned about the balance of power in the region, which is the only solution to security issue and the basic premise of its relations with major powers. In this sense, it is impractical for India to expect that ASEAN will lean toward it.
In the field of development and trade, ASEAN countries are well aware that as populous developing nations, they don't share much complementarity with India. The annual trade volume between India and ASEAN is currently $71 billion which has been declining since its peak in 2012. The trade volume between ASEAN and China in 2016 exceeded $450 billion, hence the group is more economically dependent on China. In addition, at talks during the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, India severely delayed the process forcing ASEAN leaders to ask New Delhi to conclude negotiations as soon as possible at last week's summit.
The military cooperation between India and ASEAN is just empty talk. Surrounded by big powers, ASEAN has not only established relations based on equality with big powers in Asia-Pacific region, but also brought them into its multilateral framework by means of the ASEAN Norms, such as coexistence and quiet diplomacy. The core contents of the ASEAN Norms summarized by Amitav Acharya, a notable scholar on international relations, include opposing the ASEAN military agreement and bilateral defense cooperation.