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Until now, India has had the luxury of extending rhetorical support to ASEAN's centrality in promoting an open and inclusive architecture. But the changing regional context demands a more purposeful Indian intervention in the unfolding debate on Asian security. Two major assumptions about the Asian regional order are now beginning to unravel. One was the proposition that there would be no great power competition in East Asia and the other was the belief that the ASEAN would remain a strong and coherent force.
For nearly four decades, Sino-American rapprochement and deepening economic interdependence between them underwrote Asian stability. But Beijing's recent assertiveness and Washington's response to it have begun to generate a new strategic dynamic in the region. Many of Beijing's Asian neighbours are looking to the US to balance a rising China. Washington has announced a strategic pivot to Asia and plans to deploy 60 per cent of its armed forces in the Pacific theatre. To cope with the dramatic expansion of Chinese military clout, America is strengthening its traditional military alliances in the region and building new partnerships.
Beijing, unsurprisingly, sees the pivot as an American attempt to constrain China's natural preponderance in Asia. Although Beijing and Washington are not yet locked in an irreversible confrontation, the growing tension between them has cast a shadow over the region.
The ASEAN has found it difficult to sustain its political unity in the face of China's rising power. Not all its members have been willing to stand by Vietnam and the Philippines, which have been locked in escalating maritime territorial disputes with Beijing. The last ministerial meeting of the ASEAN in Phnom Penh a few months ago ended without an agreed statement because the host nation, Cambodia, was apparently opposed to including any references that might irk Beijing.