Date: September 6, 2023, Location: Jakarta, Indonesia
Back in 1965, Jakarta, Indonesia, witnessed a shocking incident when an angry mob armed with stones, sticks, and missiles launched an attack on the Indian embassy, chanting “Crush India.” This unsettling event was incited by none other than Sukarno, the then President of Indonesia. This episode seemed a stark contrast to Sukarno’s earlier visit to India in 1950 when he was invited by Pandit Nehru to be the Chief Guest at India’s first Republic Day parade.
The root cause of this attack was a bitter border dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia from 1963 to 1966, during which India had thrown its weight behind Malaysia. Indonesia, infuriated by India’s support for its rival, retaliated with an assault on the Indian embassy, enjoying China’s backing in the process.
Fast forward 58 years, and the geopolitical landscape has evolved significantly. Today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is on his way to Indonesia to participate in a summit with ASEAN nations. The difference this time is Indonesia’s desire for India’s support to avoid being ensnared in China’s expanding sphere of influence.
In this narrative, we’ll delve into what ASEAN represents and how India is strategically working to encircle China within its own neighborhood through this crucial alliance.
The Birth of ASEAN Amidst US-Russia Hostility
After the conclusion of World War II in 1945, the nations of Southeast Asia, liberated from Japanese and Western colonial rule, found themselves grappling with internal ideological conflicts and territorial disputes. This period coincided with the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Niranjan Oak, an expert in ASEAN affairs at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, explains that in 1965, a coup in Indonesia led to the downfall of the Sukarno government, which had previously enjoyed China’s support. Consequently, the longstanding war between Malaysia and Indonesia, which had raged on since 1966, came to an end. However, the struggle against communism continued in Vietnam, with active U.S. involvement.
In this complex context, five Southeast Asian nations, namely Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, decided to set aside their differences and convene in Bangkok in 1967. Their objective: to counter the spread of communism and foster peace and prosperity in the region. This marked the inception of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War, ASEAN expanded its membership to encompass five more countries: Cambodia, Vietnam, Brunei, Laos, and Myanmar. These nations sought to enhance economic collaboration as a means to prevent conflicts and promote stability. Today, ASEAN comprises 10 member states.
India and ASEAN: Forging Stronger Bonds
India’s engagement with ASEAN nations commenced in the 1990s when Prime Minister Narasimha Rao initiated the Look East Policy in 1992. A report by The Economist on March 6, 1997, emphasized that Nehru had historically regarded Southeast Asian nations as subordinate Western allies, but these countries were now emerging as economic role models for India.
The report highlighted India’s alignment with ASEAN economies. After resolving internal differences, ASEAN nations swiftly accelerated their economic development, collectively becoming a group of rapidly emerging economies. This newfound prosperity made ASEAN an attractive destination for partnerships, with Singapore boasting a per capita income higher than that of many developed nations.
After years of negotiations and discussions beginning in 2010, India signed a Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN countries. When the BJP government took office in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi elevated India’s Look East Policy to the Act East Policy.
According to Niranjan Oak, an ASEAN affairs expert, over 55% of India’s trade flows through the South China Sea. Consequently, maintaining favorable relations with these nations is of paramount importance to India. Moreover, due to maritime security concerns, ASEAN nations have gained increased significance for India. The Asian financial crisis of 1998 had made these countries more reliant on China. With China asserting dominance in the South China Sea, ASEAN nations began strengthening their ties with the United States. Presently, India presents itself as a third viable option for ASEAN nations.
ASEAN nations are becoming more conscious of India’s role and are keen to enhance it within the organization. Even the United States has recognized India’s importance in the region, shifting from the “Asia-Pacific” to referring to it as the “Indo-Pacific” region.
ASEAN nations are also exhibiting a growing demand for arms. According to the 2023 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, military spending by Southeast Asian countries has doubled over the past two decades, escalating from $1.67 billion in 2000 to $3.57 billion in 2021.
The most significant surge in military spending occurred in 2013, coinciding with China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea. Consequently, five out of ASEAN’s ten member countries expressed concerns over China’s activities. These nations include Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, and Indonesia, which have limited arms production capabilities. In fact, only one Singaporean company ranks among the top 100 global weapons manufacturers.
In light of these circumstances, these countries require the military capabilities of other nations to counterbalance China. India is actively positioning itself in this market.
India’s Strategic Objectives:
- Containing China in the Indian Ocean: According to Yogesh Joshi, a researcher at Singapore National University, China is pursuing expansionist policies to establish itself as a superpower, targeting countries that challenge its ambitions, including India. By supplying weapons to Asian nations, India aims to divert China’s attention from the Indian Ocean towards the South China Sea. In March 2023, India’s BrahMos Aerospace Company announced its readiness to provide supersonic missiles to Indonesia, with preliminary discussions for a ₹16 billion deal already underway. Additionally, India has secured a ₹31 billion deal with the Philippines for the delivery of BrahMos missiles by year-end.
- Encircling China in Its Neighborhood: By equipping Asian nations with advanced weaponry, India is not only seeking to shift China’s focus away from the Indian Ocean but also indirectly supporting these nations in encircling China within its own vicinity. The missiles and arms India is preparing to supply will be deployed in the South China Sea. India is not merely selling BrahMos missiles but also its Tejas combat aircraft to Asian nations, enabling them to monitor Chinese naval activities in the South China Sea.
When Prime Minister Modi participates in the ASEAN summit on September 6th, he won’t be the sole leader aiming to strengthen ties with these nations. South Korean President Moon Jae-in will also attend the summit in Indonesia, with both India and South Korea competing to supply arms to Asian countries.
Earlier this year in February, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) of India disclosed its engagement with four countries for the sale of its Tejas combat aircraft. Malaysia was among the contenders, but it ultimately opted for South Korea’s FA-50 fighter jet over India’s Tejas. Malaysia’s decision can be attributed to two key factors:
- Manufacturing Speed: While India’s Tejas combat aircraft boasted more features than South Korea’s FA-50, Malaysia found the FA-50 to be faster. Tejas lagged behind in terms of speed, and South Korea’s manufacturing capacity outperformed HAL. HAL produces between 16 to 24 light combat aircraft annually, whereas South Korea has been manufacturing FA-50 aircraft since 2005, demonstrating superior production capabilities.
- Experience: Malaysia also cited another reason for selecting the FA-50—it was already in use by several countries, whereas Tejas was limited to India. Malaysia was unwilling to experiment with unproven technology.
Why Is PM Modi Visiting Indonesia Amidst a Busy Schedule?
Niranjan Oak, an expert in Asian affairs at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, identifies two compelling reasons behind PM Modi’s visit to Indonesia, despite his demanding schedule:
- Championing the Voice of the Global South and Developing Nations: India is positioning itself as the spokesperson for global South and developing countries, a category that encompasses many nations in Southeast Asia. As India presents itself as a viable alternative to both China and the United States, it is essential to demonstrate a firm commitment to these nations. PM Modi’s visit to Indonesia serves precisely this purpose.
- Reinforcing Ties with ASEAN: India has recently elevated its friendship with ASEAN nations by signing a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) agreement. This partnership transcends sectoral approaches and expands the relationship between India and ASEAN nations. Now, India must underscore its dedication to cherishing this friendship.
In conclusion, India’s proactive efforts to bolster its presence in the ASEAN neighborhood are driven by strategic objectives aimed at countering China’s growing influence. By equipping ASEAN nations with advanced weaponry and fostering closer ties, India is effectively shaping the dynamics of a new Cold War era.