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India aims to tighten Quad's ASEAN ties as it hosts top diplomats

Foreign Ministers Meeting Comes As U.S.-China Tensions Loom Over Indo-Pacific

Capture asan
"ASEAN is central to India's 'Act East Policy' and its vision for the wider Indo-Pacific," Indian foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi told media recently. (Source photos by Ken Kobayashi and Kosaku Mimura)

NEW DELHI -- India is hosting foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Thursday and Friday, as New Delhi seeks to present itself as a steady partner for a bloc torn between the U.S. and China.

Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and his Singaporean counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan are co-chairing the meeting, which marks the 30th anniversary of India-ASEAN dialogue and a decade of strategic partnership. It is the first such conference to be held in New Delhi.

Jaishankar, in opening remarks on Thursday, stressed, "ASEAN's role today is perhaps more important than ever before, given the geopolitical challenges and uncertainties that the world faces."

Last week, Indian foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi told reporters that "ASEAN is central to India's 'Act East Policy' and its vision for the wider Indo-Pacific," referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's initiative to promote economic, strategic and cultural ties with the 10-member bloc.

Experts say India's outreach to Southeast Asia is significant considering it is also part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, a loose security alliance with the U.S., Japan and Australia.

The Quad has made a point of stressing ASEAN's central role in ensuring a "free and open Indo-Pacific region," a euphemism for containing China's military and economic influence. Jaishankar emphasized this point again in his opening statement, saying, "India fully supports a strong, unified and prosperous ASEAN, one whose centrality in the Indo-Pacific is fully recognized."

Harsh V. Pant, vice president for studies and foreign policy at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation think tank and a professor of international relations at King's College London, explained, "With all that is happening in the Indo-Pacific, [where] the Quad is now playing such a prominent role, a large part of India's policy toward the region is being centered on the ASEAN."

Pant said it is important for India to connect with ASEAN substantively and to make a case that the country can be "a reliable partner" for the bloc, in terms of both economic and security cooperation.

The ASEAN-India foreign ministers meeting comes after anti-Islam remarks by two officials from Modi's ruling party sparked a storm of criticism, including from mainly Muslim Southeast Asian states Indonesia and Malaysia. But looming larger over the region are tensions between Beijing and Washington.

China's moves "threaten to undermine security, and stability, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific," U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last Saturday. "Indo-Pacific countries shouldn't face political intimidation, economic coercion, or harassment by maritime militias."

His Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe offered a strong response at the same forum the next day, saying it would be "a historic and strategic mistake to insist on taking China as a threat and adversary, or even an enemy."

He asked the U.S. "to stop smearing and containing China, stop interfering in China's internal affairs, and stop harming China's interests."

As the confrontation sharpens, the ORF's Pant said: "This is a particularly vulnerable time for ASEAN members because they tend to balance [their ties] between the U.S. and China."

According to Pankaj Jha, professor of defense and strategic studies at O.P. Jindal Global University in India's northern state of Haryana, ASEAN "cannot be overtly against China, but somewhere down the line they need an insurance or security guarantee."

"So, they are trying to look at countries like Japan, India and South Korea, which are not very China-centric or U.S.-centric," Jha said. "They provide a kind of cushion to the ASEAN to really work toward their larger maritime and regional security [goals]."

He also noted that India's engagement with ASEAN, including this week's foreign ministers meeting, is "very critical for the Quad's maritime and strategic footprints" in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Quad, during its May summit in Japan, launched an Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness initiative, under which it would work with regional partners to respond to humanitarian and natural disasters, as well as combat illegal fishing.

The U.S. also launched its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework initiative, aiming to advance regional resilience, sustainability, inclusiveness, economic growth, fairness and competitiveness. India and a number of ASEAN members -- Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei -- were among the first nations to sign on.

"If you look at the Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness or IPEF initiatives, they need that kind of connectivity, that kind of support, which is really required from the ASEAN countries," Jha said. He added that the India-ASEAN ministerial meeting would explore ways to enhance such cooperation in the near future.

Meanwhile, responding to a question about whether Myanmar's foreign minister has been invited to the India meeting, spokesperson Bagchi did not give a clear answer. He said Myanmar's participation would be "as per the ASEAN consensus in this regard."

The bloc has largely shunned the military regime in Naypyitaw, insisting on only non-political representation at summits in light of Myanmar's failure to implement an ASEAN agreement toward resolving the country's political crisis.