Amid China tensions, Southeast Asia looks to India
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The dozens of vehicles that roared into northeast India this week on a rally from Indonesia symbolize deeper ties between the South Asian giant and Southeast Asia, but the dreadful roads along several parts of the 8,000 km (5,000 mile) journey also show how much remains to be done.
The caravan crossed jungles and mountains in eight nations before reaching the remote Indian state of Manipur, bordering Myanmar, in an event promoting a high-level meeting between India and leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in New Delhi on Thursday and Friday.
"The roads crumbled to begin with and then ceased to exist," said participants Bijoy Kumar and Vinod Nookla in a blog published by Mahindra & Mahindra, the Indian company that supplied the XUV 500 vehicles that participated.
"In place of tarmac there were boulders and the road started becoming narrower by the kilometer."
The meeting in New Delhi will mainly be a ceremonial affair to mark 20 years of cooperation, India's Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid told Reuters. But it is held against the backdrop of Chinese assertiveness in the potentially oil and gas-rich South China Sea.
Some ASEAN countries contest claims by China in the waters, making it the biggest potential flashpoint in the region. The United States has called for calm, but some ASEAN nations are also looking to India, the other regional heavyweight, to get involved.
"They want India to play a larger role. Those concerns are only increasing given the uncertain situation that is emerging," said C. Raja Mohan, a strategic affairs expert at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank.
For India, improved relations with Southeast Asia will give it entry into one of the fastest-growing economic regions in the world and a source of raw materials needed for its own growth.
But the broken-down roads between India and the nations to its southeast, a shortage of direct flights and constraints such as India's tiny diplomatic corps - comparable in size to New Zealand's - mean India trails China in relations with the region.