The dragon in the room
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Beijing's relations with some of its Southeast Asian neighbours, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, have headed south amid competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. The coherence of the ASEAN itself is under question as member states take divergent approaches to dealing with a rising China. The hope that the region can devise a collective security framework has been dashed amid these new developments.
Individually and collectively, then, the ASEAN members are looking to restore the balance of power in the region. Some of them are turning to the US to strengthen their security and others are deeply wary about the dangers of being caught up in a new Cold War between Beijing and Washington. All of them are importing advanced weapons systems and paving the way for an arms race in Southeast Asia.
In seeking a larger role from India in regional security, the ASEAN has no illusion that India is the white knight that will ride to the rescue of the region threatened by China. Southeast Asia's expectations from India in the defence arena are limited and three-fold.
One, an end to India's current passive participation in the multilateral security mechanisms, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the annual defence-ministerial meetings of the ASEAN and its partner nations. Second, the ASEAN wants Delhi to inject some life into the many bilateral defence agreements it has signed with its member states. Although India provides some military training and other support to many Southeast Asian countries, there is much more it can do enhance the material capacities of the ASEAN defence establishments. Finally, the ASEAN would like to see a more purposeful Indian defence policy in Southeast Asia, which can stabilise the regional security environment in collaboration with other major powers.
India has indeed sounded the trumpet of defence diplomacy as part of its engagement with the ASEAN over the last two decades. The notes of India's trumpet, however, must become a lot more certain. If Delhi does not help promote a stable balance of power in Southeast Asia now, India's own security challenges in the future could get a lot more daunting.