Enter the Elephant: India is Part of Asia

By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director of the Southeast Asia Program, CSIS

Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god, is considered an important symbol in India and widely revered in mythology as the “remover of obstacles.” Strategically, including India in new strategic conceptions of Asia could help to do exactly that—remove obstacles, enhance balance and help create regional architecture robust enough to welcome rising super powers in a manner that preserves peace and prosperity in Asia and globally.

Encouraging India to focus on Asia should be a shared interest of the United States, ASEAN, and other Asian powers. India clearly understands the benefits of deeper engagement in Asia; Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s “Look East” policy articulates the strategic and economic benefits with lucidity. Still, the policy is not being implemented with the kind of energy that makes partners believe India is serious. Security in the Indian Ocean combined with the prospect of new markets and investment opportunities should be compelling entry channels, but an all-encompassing focus on Pakistan is monopolizing foreign policy bandwidth in New Delhi.

To the extent that Southeast Asia’s diverse countries share a foreign policy and national security outlook, the focus of common interest is balancing great-power influence in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean. U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton called the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) the “fulcrum for the region’s emerging regional architecture.”  The region is comfortable with that concept, namely being the center of a balanced, peaceful, and prosperous Asia.

ASEAN countries want to benefit from the growing economic dynamism of their large neighbors China and India, but as their economic interdependence with these regional giants expands, ASEAN is becoming increasingly wary of the longer-term intentions of China. It perceives India to be less engaged in Asia and more focused on domestic issues and Pakistan. While desiring engagement, balance, and even commercial competition between the world’s largest economies, ASEAN wants to avoid a paradigm shift in which it finds itself at the center of great-power confrontation.

In this context, ASEAN is looking to repeat its early success in welcoming a large neighbor with unclear intentions and aspirations into a community of nations to promote peace and growth. ASEAN was founded in Thailand in 1967, motivated at least in part by creating a regional framework to accommodate Indonesia. Sukarno had confronted Malaysia and Singapore during konfrontasi and needed to be convinced that Indonesia could exercise its power and influence while respecting the sovereignty of its neighboring countries and reap benefits from promoting mutual security and economic interests. ASEAN’s success in assimilating Indonesia is clear.

Fast-forward to today. China has stirred atavistic antibodies in ASEAN over the last 18 months by using language such as “indisputable sovereignty” and “core interest” in reference to the South China Sea, through its unwillingness to compromise on allowing ASEAN to coordinate as a group for negotiations over disputed territory in the South China Sea, by its handling of maritime disputes in north Asia (specifically the Senkaku and Diaoyu islands), and via its response to North Korea’s aggressive acts against South Korea.  China has not used such language in reference to the Indian Ocean, but there are real concerns among ASEAN countries about China’s intent in pursuing a military presence there—the “String of Pearls”— through its efforts in Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. There are also concerns about China’s foreign policy in “buffer states,” including North Korea, Burma, and to a certain extent Pakistan. Changing the paradigm in these countries could augur an even brighter future for stability and economic growth in Asia.

ASEAN generally views Indian engagement as less strategically focused and more commercial in nature than China’s. This is a posture the region would be comfortable with if it were not concerned about China’s intentions. Given heightened anxieties about China, there is interest among some ASEAN countries in promoting a more proactive Indian engagement in Southeast Asia and regional architecture. It is important to point out that ASEAN has no interest in containing China, but is motivated instead to develop a regional framework that can accommodate and provide enough ballast to help smooth the edges of an ascendant China so that it will focus on growth while respecting the sovereignty of its neighbors and vital “public goods” such as the sea lanes of communications (SLOCs). ASEAN can emphasize these themes during the ASEAN-India Dialogue in Delhi on March 2-3.

The United States has shared interest with ASEAN in promoting balance, peace, and prosperity in Asia. To that end, the United States has become more proactive and serious about regional architecture, deepening ties with allies, expanding new strategic partnerships and seeing India more engaged. To be effective in this context, the United States should take the following steps:

  1. Take regional architecture seriously. Send President Obama to his first East Asia Summit (EAS) in Jakarta this fall with a listening brief and statesman like posture. Do not try to rationalize the structure and drive the agenda explicitly in his inaugural engagement. Prepare by supporting friends and like-minded members.
  2. Strengthen ASEAN. Invest in building ASEAN’s capacity and capabilities to attain its economic, political, and social integration goals. Coordinate closely with allies such as Japan, Australia, and Korea in this effort, leveraging their myriad strengths and resources.
  3. Encourage India to engage strategically and energetically in security efforts in the Indian Ocean and specifically in ASEAN, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM +), and the East Asia Summit. Secretary Clinton’s upcoming visit to India presents an ideal venue for this effort.
  4. Seek India’s support, in its role as current chair of the United Nations Security Council, for the candidacy of Dr. Surin Pitsuwan as the next United Nations Secretary General. Dr. Surin is the current ASEAN Secretary General, former Thai foreign minister, and an outspoken advocate of moderate Islam.
  5. Reshape the bureaucratic divisions of South Asia and East Asia in foreign policy, defense, and national security structures within the U.S. government.

The colonial-era lines dividing South Asia and East Asia are being practically erased by business, people-to-people ties, transnational shared interests, and geostrategic balancing. The new US strategic perspective of the region should take these trends into account. Doing so will send timely encouragement to our friends in India and Southeast Asia.

Photo by Marcos Abis, used under a Creative Commons license.


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