The dragon in the room

But, let's return for a moment to the celebrations of India's ties with Southeast Asia. A century ago, the discovery of historic civilisational links with Southeast Asia was a booster shot for Indian nationalism and helped it reclaim its natural place in Asia. A little over two decades ago, when India was down and out — its economic model in a shambles and its international isolation stark — it was Southeast Asia that extended valuable solidarity.

The ASEAN provided the most acceptable international benchmarks for India's own economic liberalisation. It was also the ASEAN that helped Delhi cope with the new imperatives of regionalism in Asia. It was with the ASEAN member states that India negotiated some of its early free trade agreements at a bilateral level. Nearly three years ago, India implemented its first free trade agreement in goods with the ASEAN as a whole.

This week India and ASEAN will finalise a new agreement that liberalises trade in services and investments. India has already agreed last month to join the ambitious negotiations for a free trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, with the ASEAN and its other economic partners — China, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

India's ASEAN partnership has been emblematic of the country's own economic transformation — internal and external — since it began the reforms at the turn of the 1990s. The ASEAN is also becoming the test-bed for India's potential role as a provider of security to other nations and as a swing state in the Asian balance of power.

After more than three decades of peace and tranquility, Southeast Asia now confronts a period of great turbulence, marked by mounting tensions among the major powers and the deepening regional conflicts. China's deepening territorial conflict with Japan and its new rivalry with the United States have injected fluidity into Asia's great power relations.

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