Through the Quad mechanism and the strong bilateral ties between Japan and India, and India and the US, ASEAN has become aware that a coalition of democracies has formed to ensure that hegemonic ambitions in the region by an authoritarian country do not get actualized.
KOCHI: India and ASEAN have become close partners amidst the turbulence and promise of the 21st century. This was not always the case. In a style characteristic of those times, India passed up the opportunity of being a founder-member of ASEAN in 1967 as a consequence of its members being regarded by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as being aligned to the United States. The founding members were Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia, and four of the five countries (the exception being the Philippines) had extensive civilisational links with India, a factor that was first brought to life with the Look East policy of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao from 1991 onwards and placed on a fast lane by the Act East policy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 during the first six months of his ascension to the office. It was again Narasimha Rao who ensured that India became a sectoral partner of ASEAN in 1992 and a full Dialogue Partner in 1996, recognising the mutual benefits of close ties between India and the influential SE Asian bloc. The process was carried forward under Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in 2002, with India becoming a Summit Partner of ASEAN and effectuating an ASEAN-India Free Trade Agreement in 2010 as a consequence of the impetus given by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
ASEAN SELDOM CONSULTED
Although there is a uniform chorus among major and Great Powers that “ASEAN centrality” is embedded in their foreign policy, the reality is that consultations with all or any of the member states of ASEAN in matters of significance taking place elsewhere in the world have been rare. Even within the territory encompassed by the bloc, the largest economy in Asia and the second-largest in the world, the PRC, has ignored the views and even
the rights of ASEAN countries in its ongoing campaign of taking control of sea, air, water and land space within the lawful territorial boundaries of the eleven member-states of ASEAN. In just the case of the Philippines, long a treaty ally of the US, both Mischief Reef (which was occupied by the PLA in 1995) and the Spratly Islands, which was wholly militarized by the PLA in 2014, show the effects of PRC expansionism. In the case of Vietnam, a member of ASEAN that went to kinetic war with China in 1979, the PLA Navy has sought to make it difficult and often impossible for Hanoi to tap the potential of the oil fields that lie within its territorial waters. Almost all the members of ASEAN have witnessed encroachments by the PRC into their territorial boundaries, but in view of Beijing’s military and economic power, thus far such challenges have met with only token protest. As a consequence, despite frequent references made to “ASEAN centrality”, there have not thus far been serious efforts by the major democracies at enrolling ASEAN as a security partner in the mission of the US-India led effort to keep the Indo-Pacific free, open and inclusive. Even Singapore, which since its inception looks to the US in particular for its security, prefers to remain silent while the PRC continues on its expansionist spree within the region. In contrast, the Philippines under Bongbong Marcos and Indonesia under Joko Widodo have made it clear in public that they are opposed to such moves, with the latter even once expressing himself in favour of admitting India into ASEAN.
ASEAN HONEYCOMBED BY PRC
Within each member of ASEAN, there are political forces that favour a spirit of appeasement where the activities of China in the region and in the East China Sea and the South Pacific are concerned. This is so even in Vietnam, which has been the victim of aggression by the PLA. As for Cambodia, where PRC-backed dictator Pol Pot committed genocide, its government has regarded obedience to Beijing’s dictates as essential to its own safety. There is, however, disquiet, even within groups that for long were boosters of the PRC. From the 1980s, the Overseas Chinese diaspora has served as a buckle linking countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines to the PRC. This had served the interests of both sides during the period when Beijing and Washington were aligned in matters of geopolitics, a situation that began to weaken in 1997 and encountered headwinds in 2017, when President Donald J. Trump imposed tariffs on several imports from China. The dilemma facing the many Overseas Chinese who were responsive to PRC interests is that CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping expects them to subserve the interests and needs of the PRC rather than those of the governments of the countries they are citizens of. This has created a conflict of interest that in many cases has found them teetering on the wrong side of domestic law, even as more and more regulations get effectuated to deal with the challenge of PRC infiltration into societal, governmental, media and other networks within Southeast and East Asian states.
MOMENT OF TRUTH FOR ASEAN
Since the Trump tariffs, despite the high degree of influence of the Sino-Wahhabi lobby within successive US administrations, the turbulence between the two superpowers has only grown, so much so that a period is approaching when it will be problematic to be close to both the PRC as well as the US at the same time. Certainly where matters of partnering with other countries in matters of security, a choice will need to be made between (i) neutrality (ii) linking with the US and its allies and partners or (iii) tying up with China and its friends and partners, the most significant of which is the Russian Federation. Such daylight between the Xi-driven interests and requirements of China and the need for citizens to be loyal to the countries whose passports they have are resulting in a rethink among many within the Overseas Chinese diaspora about their earlier enthusiasm in supporting the objectives of the CCP. Throughout ASEAN, as indeed within Europe and North America, a growing number of citizens who are ethnic Chinese are veering to the view that a democratic system needs to replace the CCP autocracy in the PRC, especially since Xi Jinping has got passed a decree that makes him CCP General Secretary for Life of the world’s other superpower, and has put military requirements ahead of all else in his pursuit of what Xi and his loyalists regard as the Chinese interest.
RULES APPLY FOR OTHERS, NOT CHINA
Decoupling from the rest of the world where much of its own market is concerned while opposing a similar move towards China is not the only contradiction evident in Beijing’s dealings with the international community. Now that Xi has managed to remove from positions of power any individual regarded as less than fully committed to Xi as CCP General Secretary for Life, Beijing has been sharply critical of the NATO policy of selective sanctions on a variety of countries, predominant among them being Russia. At the same time, under the direct instructions of Xi Jinping, imports of Australian coal were cut off by China once then Prime Minister Scott Morrison made the reasonable demand that there ought to be a fair and transparent investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, a demand that several Wuhan Lab Leak deniers in the US and the EU consider to be sacrilege. Careers have been ruined in 2020 and as late as mid-2022 for the presumed heresy of attributing the origins of Covid-19 to the laboratory work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that was funded in large part by US donors for reasons that are still opaque, and whose facilitators in the US have not faced any accountability during the Biden administration. Japan was cut off from Chinese rare earth supplies as a form of punishment as early as 2010 for expressing views contrary to the CCP leadership’s thinking, a form of sanctions that was brought out of storage more recently during the tensions that erupted during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Evidently, while such moves against the PRC are unjustified, similar actions by Beijing are kosher.
While Xi Jinping claims to oppose de-coupling of any form of economic activity from any particular country and to favour a globalised trading system seamlessly exchanging commodities across national boundaries, China itself has for a long time significantly decoupled itself from large swathes of the international community. For example, it is not just The Sunday Guardian or NewsX (both of which were blocked in the PRC since 2020) but several other newspapers as well that are barred from being accessed or distributed within territories controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Online platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China, even while US courts have ensured that even TikTok continues to operate on US soil, despite the visible difference in the US and the PRC versions of the China-controlled platform. Differences that have a profound difference in the impact that is made through their use on young minds in particular. Several products or even lines of production of goods and services are barred within the PRC, either by law or by administrative practice. Information Technology companies from India have long been unable to break into the vast market offered by PRC state-owned enterprises, even though in several fields they are the highest quality and lowest priced alternatives globally available. Similar has been the case with the pharmaceutical industry. Even Hollywood faces a ban, with only a trickle of the movies made being cleared for exhibition within China. While decoupling its domestic market from much of global competition through a variety of stratagems, the CCP leadership demands unrestricted access for its own manufactures and services, including online platforms. President Bill Clinton ensured full WTO membership to the PRC in 1999 during his term of office, but up to now, the CCP leadership has ensured that access to markets works only in one direction.
INDIA AND ASEAN COME CLOSER
The gap between words and deeds is most evident in the case of relations with India, which is fast becoming a comprehensive strategic partner of ASEAN under Prime Minister Modi. While soothing expressions of friendship and honeyed gestures are common from the Chinese leadership to their Indian counterparts, the PLA has not dimmed its aggressive activities against India, nor has Beijing followed the example of Myanmar and accepted the McMahon Line as the official boundary with India in accordance with international law. Unlike in the case of ASEAN, where most members have been reluctant to call out China, in the case of India, there has been vigorous pushback against PRC expansionism directed against the world’s most populous democracy. Infrastructure is finally being built across the India-China frontier, while the military in India has shown that it will not countenance any PLA move designed to snatch away more territory across the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Prime Minister Modi, assisted by External Affairs Minister Jaishankar, has been clear that normalisation of Sino-Indian ties will happen only after the CCP respects One India rather than constantly expound and expand on its definition of One China. Such a stance has been noted by key ASEAN member states, including the most populous, Indonesia, which is rapidly developing relations with India to a level not seen since the 1950s. It will be remembered that President Achmed Soekarno of Indonesia was the State Guest at the first Republic Day parade on Rajpath in 1950. Across ASEAN, including most notably in Cambodia and to a lesser extent Laos (both dominated at present by the PRC), there is an upwelling of interest in closer contacts with India, including in matters relating to counter-terrorism.
Through the Quad mechanism and through the now very strong bilateral ties between Japan and India and India and the US in particular, ASEAN member states have become aware that a coalition of democracies has formed within the Indo-Pacific to ensure that hegemonic ambitions in the region by a particular country not get actualised, and that the future will see a rollback rather than an expansion of the fruits of expansionism. Within each member state of ASEAN, more and more policymakers are veering to the view that common cause needs to be made both within the forum as well as with friendly countries outside to ensure the defence of the legitimate interests of the member states. Such a confident and robust approach to its own security is key to the acceptance in practice rather than simply in words of the centrality of ASEAN in the region. The geopolitical chessboard within ASEAN is showing signs of moving in a direction that better protects rights and freedoms from external threats and actions, and in such a process, India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become a willing and welcome partner of a group of countries that each have an admirable history and tradition.