The ASEAN doesn’t usually stand together when it comes to dealing with the dragon in the room. That, in some ways, is understandable: each of the ten countries have very different and complex relations with China. Vietnam and the Philippines presently have the most strained relationships over contested South China Sea islands. The eight other members, all keeping an eye on their increasing economic integration with China.
How does a region in deep embrace of China’s economic power deal with its growing political might? That was the question also being debated in Jakarta last week, where I was present at a rare closed-door gathering of experts, opinion makers and journalists from every ASEAN country. There were at least three clear conclusions that emerged.
One, there is a strong sentiment that the grouping was beginning – however slowly – to start punching its weight. The second conclusion was that for all the bad press that China is getting for its South China Sea “bullying” and land reclamation activities, Beijing has been incredibly successful in its economic courtship of the region. President Xi-Jinping’s landmark Maritime Silk Road initiative is further consolidating China’s economic grip on the region. It isn’t difficult to see why the Philippines isn’t being backed strongly in its disputes with China. On the contrary, in Jakarta, there was a distinct sense of annoyance – rather than any empathy – for Manila. Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia all have close economic ties with Beijing that they don’t want to upset. The third conclusion is that a sense of unease about China’s unrivalled economic dominance in Asia is leading countries to seek closer ties with other major powers.
Despite India’s rhetoric of “Looking East” – since upgraded to “Act East” by the Modi government – there was a widely held view in Jakarta that New Delhi has largely ignored a region that is an increasingly important trading partner. China’s active courtship of the region with the government embarking on ambitious infrastructure projects under its Silk Road initiative presents a sharp contrast: Beijing has in less than a year dispelled any doubts about the seriousness of its initiative, today building bullet trains in Thailand and lobbying for high speed rail and port projects in Indonesia. There is much less confidence about whether India will follow through on "acting east". What is clear is that the current realignment in the region presents a unique opportunity for India. But whether it will be seized is an altogether different question.
(from India “daily”website, Aug 9: "Why India is no match for China in Southeast Asia" by Ananth Krishnan)