The following originally appeared as part of an Asia Society Policy Roundtable on 12 November 2018.
For a large and rising power such as India, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is critical to its regional engagement. This represents a considerable turnaround from earlier decades. ASEAN initially arose in circumstances brought about by failures of Indian leadership efforts in Asia—specifically, the Non-Aligned Movement and principles of peaceful coexistence that defined the region in the 1950s. At the time, India viewed both ASEAN and its agenda with considerable suspicion, concerned that it would contribute to regional divisiveness. This began to change in the 1990s, when the end of the Cold War realigned both India’s and ASEAN’s priorities, enabling India’s “Look East” policy; its eventual incorporation into the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS), and the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus); and its involvement in Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations.
Today, ASEAN is being tested. And yet it is at this very moment that India has chosen to increase its engagement, establishing a separate diplomatic mission and ambassador in Jakarta, as well as a new ASEAN Multilateral division in its foreign ministry. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a 2018 speech in Singapore, underscored that “ASEAN unity is essential for a stable future for this region … it has laid the foundation of the Indo-Pacific Region.” In January of this year, India invited all ten ASEAN leaders to a summit in New Delhi, wherein a joint declaration they agreed to “ensure an open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based regional architecture.”
While India has stepped up its diplomatic engagement with ASEAN, and bolstered security and – to a lesser degree – economic links with its member states, concerns are mounting about ASEAN’s internal unity and external relevance. Indeed, the various ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategies and policies that are emerging, including those of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, are primarily efforts to reinforce the regional order in the absence of ASEAN’s ability to do so. This includes efforts at deepening security cooperation and interoperability, particularly in the maritime domain; offering new financial instruments that increase regional prosperity and connectivity without compromising national sovereignty; and promoting globally-accepted norms of behavior in contested domains. An over-emphasis on consensus – the much-vaunted “ASEAN Way” – has proved inadequate in meeting many of these demands, particularly in the face of China’s rise and newfound assertiveness.
If ASEAN did not exist today, it would have to be invented. Its achievements to date have been commendable in terms of advancing cooperation in an otherwise contested and diverse environment. The EAS, in particular, will grow in salience as the primary regional political institution. But none of this means that ASEAN is immune to criticism. Nor can it afford to exempt itself from necessary and difficult reforms if it hopes to preserve its centrality in Asia’s 21st century regional architecture. For a country such as India that is committed to ASEAN centrality, this will require redoubling its efforts at cooperation, to help strengthen a central institution at a critical juncture.