Leadership-level exchanges and contacts with all ASEAN states have visibly deepened in the last three years and we should see that culminate on the occasion of the silver jubilee.
In this changing landscape, few would dispute that the evolving India-China relationship has a direct implication for ASEAN, for the larger Asia-Pacific, and perhaps even globally. We are all aware by now of the complexity inherent in the rise of two major powers near simultaneously, that too in close proximity. That the powers in question are civilisational ones, with positive far history and difficult near history, add to the challenge. The big debate is about the opportunities and risks that emanate from this twin rise. Skewing the analysis in the direction of one at the expense of the other could mislead us. In truth, the India-China relationship by now has acquired so many dimensions and so much substance that reducing it to black and white argumentation cannot be a serious proposition. It is not only that India and China have stakes in each other; the world and especially ASEAN have a vested interest in this matter.
This is not to suggest that old problems have been all been addressed or that new issues will not arise. India has an alarming trade deficit that in our view emanates from obstacles to market access in China. Negotiations on the long-standing boundary dispute also continue. Differences on issues like terrorism, nuclear energy access and connectivity initiatives have also acquired some prominence. But the fact is that today, India-China relations are really multifaceted. Last month, when the leaders of the two countries met at Astana, they reached consensus on two key points: (a) that at a time of global uncertainty, India-China relations are a factor of stability, and (b) in their relationship, India and China must not allow differences to become disputes. This consensus underlines the strategic maturity with which the two countries must continue to approach each other.
ASEAN also has a natural interest in the growing ties between India and Japan. Gradually and steadily, Japan has emerged as a special strategic partner with whom India increasingly shares a global agenda. The planned Shinkansen high-speed rail project is the symbol of these changes. But they do reflect a much more profound shift underway, one that involves a significant Japanese commitment to infrastructure modernisation in India, a substantially larger investment footprint and the accompanying ecosystem that nurtures these processes. ASEAN nations are, of course, very familiar with these developments, though perhaps the scale in India is of a different order. Equally relevant is that as a country that shares similar values and principles, Japan is comfortable partnering India as it assumes greater security responsibilities. We also see the enhanced synergy between India and Japan on connectivity and maritime security as a positive for ASEAN nations.
The big question today in the world is the global strategic approach of the United States. This matters to India as much as it does to ASEAN nations, and indeed to the entire world. There seem to be a number of parallel processes at work. The United States is, generally speaking, reframing its terms of engagement with the world. In some arenas, there may be a redefinition of its objectives. In others, we may be looking at a redrawing of its posture. At the same time, let us be clear what is not happening: The US is not withdrawing from the world. On the contrary, it is seeking to get what it hopes to be a better deal from the rest of the world. These are still early days. It is important not to jump to conclusions. The continued presence of the United States in the Asia-Pacific is an important factor in the calculations of all nations. Developing a nuanced understanding of the unfolding situation is a must for policymakers, as well as analysts.
In this background, it is important that India and the ASEAN have honest conversations on the big issues of the day. To my mind, there are essentially five that will require focused deliberation in the times to come:
i) Connectivity is today the new Great Game. India shares the international community’s desire for enhancing physical as well as softer forms of connectivity. We believe in transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices, while underlining respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, ensuring TOT, rule of law and the protection of the environment. This is a principled approach and we are always open to discussions.
ii) Maritime security is a second key concern. India supports respect for freedom of navigation, overflight and commerce throughout the region. It expects nations to resolve territorial and maritime disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law. And just as important, we practise what we preach. India is also increasingly shouldering responsibilities in this area. In recent years, we have concluded White Shipping agreements with many countries and emerged as first responders in HADR situations, from Fiji to Yemen. The Indian Ocean is a collaborative arena with vast potential that, as the prime minister of Sri Lanka reminded me recently, is the largest English-speaking region in the world.
iii) Terrorism and radicalisation is a shared challenge, one where India would be open to working more purposefully with ASEAN members. Perhaps, there should be greater appreciation that it is India that insulates this region from many of the viruses proliferating to its West. In an era when networking amongst terrorists is reaching serious proportions, societies facing threats must respond more cohesively. In particular, they must be clear that there is no justification for terrorism on any grounds.
iv) Economic globalisation is under pressure and even as we counter protectionism, it is important to analyse the causes for this trend. The virtues of preferential trade arrangements are less self-apparent today, possibly because many of its outcomes have been very one-sided. Clearly, PTA/FTAs are not the same as openness. Arriving at a more balanced position would require a more objective assessment of how they have worked so far.
v) Finally, advancing an Asian security architecture founded on commonly accepted norms and rules. The centrality of ASEAN to its evolution is indisputable.
Edited excerpts from a speech by Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar to mark 25 years of India-Singapore Partnership at Singapore on July 11