The dragon in the room

ASEAN expects Delhi to play a bigger role in regional security

A rare summit this week in Delhi, between the leaders of the ten-member ASEAN, marks one of the most productive periods of India's interaction with Asia in modern times. Two decades of India's Look East policy and ten years of annual high-level engagement with the Association of South East Asian Nations have produced one of India's most robust international partnerships.

The celebrations, however, must be tempered by the recognition that the next phase in the relations between India and the ASEAN will be a lot more demanding and test the skills of Delhi's statecraft. As the rapidly changing geopolitical environment makes Asia look for a larger Indian security role in the region, Delhi appears hesitant and ambiguous. To be sure, the summit might call for greater maritime security cooperation between India and the ASEAN, underline the importance of the Law of the Sea in resolving maritime territorial disputes, and emphasise the principle of freedom of navigation.

All these catch-phrases are meant to convey India's diplomatic support to the current security concerns of the ASEAN members, especially their worries about the growing military capabilities of China and Beijing's increasing political assertiveness in its territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

But is Delhi really prepared to go beyond the diplomatic and meet the growing ASEAN expectations for a stronger Indian contribution to the regional balance of power? No one at the summit is likely to mention the "C" word, but there is no denying the dragon in the room. It is not that either India or ASEAN want to define their partnership in terms of China. But both are aware that most of the emerging security challenges in Southeast Asia are about the geopolitical consequences for China's rise.

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