Though not much has been said publicly about what went during the Delhi Dialogue IV about ASEAN’s and India’s mutual concern regarding China but the news that have trickled from the event clearly suggest the urgency of both India and Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to come together to counter China’s increasing influence in all sectors including business, trade, military and of course South China Sea.
Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Singapore’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said: “India’s presence in ASEAN would create a more prosperous, peaceful and stable region. With India emerging as a global power, this partnership has become more indispensable to ASEAN.”
K. Kesavapany, the director of Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEA) since November 2002 said in a session on economic relations, “An ASEAN-India FTA will help India to forge ties with ASEAN in order to ensure its support as a crucial ally in the East Asia Summit. This is very important in the light of China’s rising influence through trade, aid and investment in the region.” Kesavapany was Singapore’s High Commissioner to Malaysia from 1997-2002 and was also the first Chairman of the WTO’s General Council in 1995.
Comparing India- ASEAN FTA with the region’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Kesavapany said both arrangements were “stepping stones” toward freer trade.
Kesavapany’s statement above is crucial given the fact that Singapore that has been constantly playing a particularly important role in creating awareness of India’s strategic importance in the ASEAN region. India is one of the few countries apart from Malaysia and the US with which Singapore enjoys strong military relations and both countries have participated in several joint military exercises. In late 2007, India leased Kalaikunda airbase in West Bengal to Singapore for 5 years. Singapore uses it to train its air force’s F-16 fighter aircraft due to limited airspace in Singapore. This was the first New Delhi ever leased out its military installations to foreign country on a long-term basis. Singapore has been vocal supporter of greater Indian participation in ASEAN and anti-piracy patrolling Strait of Malacca.
Meanwhile Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong welcomed India’s commitments and contributions to the process of building an ASEAN community, including a new infrastructure facility linking India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
He also called for the upgrading of the ASEAN-India dialogue relations to a strategic partnership.
Rajiv Sikri, former Special Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs with responsibility for India’s Look East Policy between 2002 and 2006 and author of ‘Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India’s Foreign Policy’ said in an interview in October 2009, “ASEAN wanted closer ties with India to balance the influence of China.”
“China does not favour a strong Indian presence and influence in Southeast Asia. China is aware of the various cultural and spiritual ties that India shares with Southeast Asia, which could naturally attract the two regions to come closer. China knows that India is the only country that could possibly challenge its ascendancy and potential hegemony in Asia, and therefore it makes sense for China to try hard to keep India under pressure.”