Why ASEAN has not yet integrated with South Asia?

Image source: Getty

If there was a list of most pertinent as well as most persistent questions in the study of South Asian Region as part of International Relations, this is certainly one of them. The history of trade & socio-cultural linkages is the living testimony of the shared historical journey of the South & South-East Asian countries. The colonial period saw a break from the ever-continuous relations as the Eastern world became an enterprise of the European overlords.

The first Prime Minister of India tried to shift this self-isolation which these newly independent or those colonies in pursuit of independence found themselves. The slew of conferences in the 1950s among South Asian, South-East Asian & African countries were an effort towards it, and their sudden disappearance after the deteriorating Sino-Indian situations and the 1962 war was a low point. The India post this period and the sudden demise of PM Nehru became inward-looking and intertwined with problems in South Asia and most of its foreign policy till recently prioritized its neighbourhood sometimes positively, but mostly managing crisis and national & regional stability. This write-up will look at the difficulties which the integration as an idea has faced, as well as the actions which different states have taken for the same aim.

The recent discovery of a Shiv Lingam by ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) at Cham Temple Complex, Vietnam is one of the many reminders of the extent of the influence of South Asian intellectual & cultural currents in South East Asian region. The extensive trade networks of the two regions which existed historically are a testament of the connectivity & People-to-people contact, establishing the point that the relation among the two regions is as natural as the monsoon winds. This reminiscing of the past also helps us gauge the potential of future co-operation & integration.

However, even in spite of all these convergences, we find that the regions are not yet able to bridge the multifaceted gaps and move towards a level of integration that can be worthy of their shared history.

Problems of South Asia

The region as a whole is the least connected region of the world, in almost all aspects. And it does not take an expert to understand that the region which is itself not integrated cannot work on integrating with other regions. There are many reasons, yet one of the most prominent is the gargantuan differences between the two major powers of South Asia. It had made the regional forum SAARC in all its essence similar to the saying “all hats but no cattle”. The current scenario finds Islamabad (because of its precarious situation) dependent on Beijing and is toeing their line in almost all spheres. This has created a short term yet near-permanent rift in the region as Rawalpindi is no more in a fix that may force it to come to the discussion table for a common minimum programme for the region.

India has worked assiduously with its like-minded neighbours to solve the main issues affecting the regional distrust. One of them was boundary disputes, and the working out of the boundary disputes with Bangladesh opened a new era in regional cooperation. The latest trial run of delivery of consignment from Kolkata to Agartala via Bangladesh’s transit proves the point. The improved situation of India with its Eastern neighbours (except China & to some extent Nepal), has encouraged India to give more impetus to BIMSTEC (The Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). However, the situations are not exactly feasible and the South Asian states coming together to establish a common policy understanding towards ASEAN is still dependent on two precise points:

  1. India’s ability to stitch the region together, creating a South Asia minus Pakistan.
  2. In addition to the above, utilizing BIMSTEC to create infrastructure & connectivity among the South & South-East Asian Region, giving a fillip to trade & commerce.
PLA Navy Drill with ASEAN countries/ Image source: China Daily

ASEAN’s China conundrum

If the situation is bad in South Asia in terms of cohesion, the ASEAN members are facing a different yet complex problem. For a very long time, the ASEAN member states were able to have good ties with China as they quite aptly balanced increased Chinese economic influence in the region with the USA playing the de facto counterweight in maintaining the free passage of seas and being net security provider in the region.

The internal differences among the states is a major factor for not being able to come up with a concrete China policy. The problem is, China deals with ASEAN at multilateral forums, but prefers to foster bilateral relations among the member states. This way Beijing is able to influence the decision making of ASEAN and further its interests. The dependence of Laos and Cambodia on Chinese investments is almost at the point of compromising sovereignty. The Cambodian debt to GDP ratio was 28.64% in 2018 and Laos’s debt to China is 45% of its GDP. This aggressive posturing by China and its tryst with claiming every territory under the heaven coupled with the USA retreating into isolationism and President Trump signing away one responsibility of Liberal Internationalism every month. This has forced many allies of the USA to face the reality and find ways to deal with any eventualities considering no to minimal support from Washington.

In addition to the separate regional problems, there are common problems as well, including increasing radicalization, pandemic related economic crisis turning into a catastrophe, regional connectivity issues (In ASEAN among the Island nations and the mainland nations), Global Warming and Climate Change to note a few. Working on the common issues can help increase the pace of integration as well as help the two regions solve the issues without compromising on sovereignty (Kowtowing).

Image source: The Straits Times

India & ASEAN: The path for Integration

The relationship which has the capacity to make the two regions work towards integration, be it economic, infrastructural, connectivity or all of them, it is the future of India-ASEAN relationship. To gauge the interdependence of their relationship and the commonalities in their world view, let us look at some economic numbers and current projects for connectivity.

Indian exports to ASEAN stand at 11.38% & the imports from ASEAN stand at 11.53%, in addition to this New Delhi is part of ASEAN plus six. These statistics and the P.M Modi’s shift from “Look East” to “Act East” policy have provided the impetus to find the loopholes in the connectivity sphere and thus move forward with integration in the spheres of commonalities.

The Socio-Cultural & Economic Cooperation and Inter-regional connectivity are the areas which can bring the regions much closer than one could imagine. As PM Modi said, “there is an opportunity for boosting cooperation in the maritime security sphere and blue economy as well as in areas of agriculture, engineering, digital technology and scientific research.” In the India-ASEAN conference in Bangkok, Nov’19.

The change in policy has also given structure to the connectivity plans of the regions. As is mentioned in the MEA statement “A possible extension to India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway to Cambodia, Lao PDR and Viet Nam is also under consideration. A consensus on finalizing the proposed protocol of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Motor Vehicle Agreement (IMT MVA) has been reached. This agreement will have a critical role in realizing the seamless movement of passenger, personal and cargo vehicles along roads linking India, Myanmar and Thailand. PM announced a Line of Credit of US$ 1 billion to promote projects that support physical and digital connectivity between India and ASEAN and a Project Development Fund with a corpus of INR 500 crores (US$ 66.5 Million) to develop manufacturing hubs in CLMV countries at the 13th ASEAN India Summit held in Malaysia in November 2015.” The way forward will be needed to pass through these infrastructural developments and solving the connectivity challenges.

Way Forward

With India taking lead in South Asia for increased interaction and furthering the relationship with its neighbours and ASEAN, the prospects look hopefully bright. The retreat of the USA from its responsibility of maintaining Liberal Institutional world order and middle powers trying to fill the void in their own ways, countering the unregulated rise of China and challenge to the existing global multipolar order. India-Japan earlier and more recently reinvigorated Quad (Australia, Japan, USA & India) is providing hope for maintaining the status quo in Indo-pacific. The engagement India & ASEAN showcase in this period will ensure the nature of future partnership and the political geography of the Indo-Pacific region.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Abhyoday Sisodia

Abhyoday Sisodia is a Research Intern at The Kootneeti

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