India and ASEAN: A Framework for Comprehensive Engagement
-Sujit Dutta, Senior Fellow, IDSA
There are more factors working towards a synergy of interests between India and the states comprising the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) than most other regional entities in the Asia-Pacific region. This is not always evident largely because relations were, for almost three decades, dormant and clouded by the political climate of the Cold War, the different priorities of India and the ASEAN states, and the deep divisions and conflicts within the South-East Asian region. That situation has changed in the past few years, opening up the possibilities for structural linkages and comprehensive engagement between the two sides.
This is not to argue that India or the ASEAN states do not currently have greater stakes in cooperation with the United States and Japan--which along with the European Union shape global economic and security structures, provide the markets, capital and technology--or that China with its rapid growth, large trade prospects, and the strategic challenges and security problems it poses is not crucial. However, India-ASEAN relations if nurtured can have a special tenor because of the gravitation of a number of strategic, economic and political factors. It is essential that all-round ties be steadily deepened so that both emerge stronger not only to face the post-Cold War challenges in the areas of security, politics and economy, and the problems accruing from deep asymmetry of power in the international system, but also to shape the future of Asia and the world.
India and the states of ASEAN are well-placed to expand their cooperation. They do not have any bilateral territorial disputes, security fears or conflicts. The new environment provides great opportunities to expand a cooperative agenda that will in turn enhance their common good as well as individual autonomy, leverage and status in the global order. They share many common social, political and economic problems, besides a long land and maritime boundary. They need to maintain peace and expand prosperity through an uncertain and complex post-Cold War security and strategic climate. Together they could enhance Asia's ability to cope with rapid social and economic change, democratisation, and maintain stability in multi-ethnic states. Growing high level political exchanges and dialogues indicate that this is being realised in both India and ASEAN.
Strategic Imperatives for Cooperation
(i) Strategic Uncertainty
The world has vast stakes--economic, security, political--in the Asia-Pacific region beginning with India and moving eastward through South-East Asia. It has some of the largest and key states of the world within its ambit--Japan, China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Russia, and the United States. The economies of the region are dynamic. Huge trade and investments ties, financial and information networks span across the area, making it politically and economically one the most vital regions of the world. There is thus a heavy concentration of vital interests of almost all the major powers, including those of Britain, France and Germany. Given the fact that the region has the world's largest concentration of population, much of the fate of the world will be decided by what happens here and how existing and emerging challenges are tackled.
Peace and stability in this region is crucial if economic dynamism is to persist through the coming decades. This is, however, not guaranteed. A series of sovereignty disputes and military issues have led to an uncertain and complex security environment. New powers are emerging and the strategic order is mobile and shifting. The region has to create a new balance of power amidst conditions that are rapidly changing. The breaking down of the Cold War induced ideological, military, economic and diplomatic barriers; the dynamic growth of the region's economies; and resurgence in power of the regional states is creating a new environment that requires new structures of peace and stability.
Rapid economic growth in the region implies that the major economic powers will be keenly involved in Asia. Two, it will mean the rise in the power of a series of large Asian states, the consequent power shift, and the need for restructuring the global structures that seek to maintain the status quo of the old post-World War II balance of forces. Three, such a shift will entail a possible clash of interests between the established North--North America and West Europe--and the Asian South. Japan, which already belongs to the Northern tier, will be increasingly torn between these two worlds and is ultimately likely to be a factor in restructuring the existing global institutions.
The resurgence of Asia is likely to give rise to other tensions and challenges as well. Strong economic and politico-military competition among the major players in the region is possible since economic power will be translated into military power by many of the states with serious security implications. And finally, rapid modernisation could have a destabilising internal impact on some of the major states, with regional security implications. The post-socialist states such as China and in Indo-China are particularly prone to such tensions, but it could as well hit post-Suharto Indonesia, and the Korean peninsula as it moves towards unification. India with its complex social and democratic policy has been prone to such strains as well.
Clearly, significant efforts have to build inter-state institutions and establish universally acceptable norms for state conduct and intra-state government if the region is to remain stable and peaceful through the coming decades.
(a) Uncertainties About Major Powers: The high speed capitalist growth in the region was, during the Cold War, buttressed by US presence and power. China's growing power is now seen by many in Asia as creating uncertainties about the long-term stability of the old order. The rapid growth in China's overall national power has both positive and negative features for Asia. It is positive because it involves the development of the largest population concentration in a single state and contributes to overall global development. Its significantly open door economic reform has opened up one of the largest markets for Asian and the world's industry. An economically advancing, reforming and prosperous China is good for Asian stability and security. It is also important in creating a global and an Asian equilibrium of forces that is essential if peace and security is to prevail, and a balance of power created.
However, the growth of China's power, both economic and military, has led to an assertive foreign policy, to use of force or threat of use of force in settling outstanding territorial disputes--as in the Paracels and Spratlys, and in the Taiwan Straits. China's desire for unification with Taiwan and Taiwan's desire to maintain its independence can be a major destabilising factor in the region unless properly handled by all. The rapid economic growth in China has been accompanied by strong growth in its defence budget since 1989, and the modernisation of its nuclear forces, and growth of force projection capabilities, including its Navy. The recently published China's White Paper on Arms Control and Disarmament indicates a general Chinese desire to concentrate on development, expand cooperation and security, and settle disputes peacefully. But clearly, China's actions--including its transfer of missiles to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia--and the rise of its power are factors that are of serious security concern for many Asian states. The South-East Asian states have been directly affected by China's territorial claims in the Spratlys and the growth of its military power. India too is directly affected given the fact that China continues to occupy large portions of Indian territory and maintains claims on an entire Indian province--Arunachal Pradesh.
This concern about China is compounded by the problems of systemic and leadership transitions. There are genuine fears of instability, and given the increasing weaknesses and tensions within the ruling Communist Party, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has emerged as the principal guarantor of stability and national unity. The crucial role of the PLA within China means in foreign policy terms an assertive China on sovereignty and territorial issues. How to translate the growing political and economic ties that most regional states have with China into constructive peace ties remains a key challenge. How to harness China's power for Asia's overall prosperity, security and autnomous development will be a major challenge in the coming years. It will almost certainly require a policy of engagement accompanied by more balanced equilibrium of forces in Asia, with both India and ASEAN as strong elements of such a balance.
The United States retains enormous influence on the region's economy, politics and security. It has the dominant military presence in Asia and maintains its old Cold War alliance system. America's continuing engagement in regional affairs is seen by most countries as beneficial for the continent's stability and prosperity through the difficult post-Cold War transitional phase. However, tensions between the US and China or Russia; a breakdown in US-Japan ties; persisting tensions in US-Iran and US-Iraq relations can complicate the role of the United States in the region. Stable relations among the major powers is an essential requirement for Asian peace through the coming decades. Moreover, barring its allies in the region, the rest of the states of Asia clearly have to safeguard their security interests on their own. US presence in East Asia may, therefore, be necessary but is not sufficient for many of the ASEAN states--Vietnam being the most prominent example. This is largely true for India as well.
There are internal pressures on the US to reduce its Asian presence. If this comes about suddenly, it would clearly be destabilising for Asia. What Asia needs is neither US hegemony nor isolation but a continued engagement to bolster universal norms, cooperative structures, non-use of force, stable ties among all major states, and an end to great power hegemonism.
For the present, the Bush and Clinton Administrations have ensured that American power would not retreat from Asia-Pacific and that both its alliance system, forward deployment of forces, and politico-and economic commitments to maintain its leadership and position in the region would be maintained, though important changes in existing defence sharing arrangements and reductions in forces are underway. America's friends and allies in Asia are not certain how long this would be sustained. New rationales have to be found in the US to sustain the Cold War alliances now that the Soviet Union has disintegrated and Communism is no more a force. Credible reasons have to be given to neutralise the opposition within America for subsidising the security of Japan and other allies in the Asia-Pacific many of whom are currently running large trade surpluses with the US.
But the very fact that the US plays such an important ideological and strategic role in the region makes China nervous and insecure. Efforts to develop a Theatre Missile Defence System by the United States and Japan are highly disturbing to China whose deterrence capability is undermined. This could lead to a series of destabilising developments. A structure of cooperation and peace in which the US, Russia, China, Japan, India are all engaged and find equally beneficial is necessary for Asian stability and peace. But that alone is not enough. Serious cooperative security building efforts that benefit all states are necessary as well. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) process which the ASEAN has initiated is, therefore, of great importance. The ARF is currently concentrating on confidence building through greater military transparency and dialogue, and on preventive diplomacy. India has supported the process and now that it has formally joined the group, it hopes to actively promote such efforts within the ARF and the Council for Security Cooperation in Asia Pacific (CSCAP) to create a better security climate in Asia. The process has a better chance of succeeding being an ASEAN rather than a great power promoted endeavour. The fact that the United States, Japan, China and Russia have backed the process is important for its success. The ARF's work is not easy. If the major powers violate international norms or use force, the organisation--like the United Nations--would find itself in a bind. Nonetheless, its consultative role is an important initial step towards constructing a framework of cooperative security in Asia-Pacific.
(b) Weapons of Mass Destruction: The important role nuclear weapons play in the defence and foreign policies of the five major powers--four of whom are active in the Asia-Pacific region: the US, China, Russia and France--are a principal source of insecurity. The indefinite extension of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) have indicated the continued determination of the nuclear weapon states to perpetuate the weapons in order to buttress their security, diplomacy and dominant role in regional affairs. It is a situation that breeds political distrust and dominance, military insecurity, and techno-economic controls on developing states. It also breeds insecurity among the major powers. The efforts to develop a Theatre Missile Defence System by the United States and Japan is an example and this in turn would make China nervous by undermining its deterrence capability.
India is surrounded by nuclear and missile powers. It is, therefore, keenly interested that issues of arms control and disarmament do not adversely affect its interests. Persistence of the present asymmetric nuclear order is not acceptable to India on political, security, and moral grounds. Its position on both the NPT and on the CTBT reflect its long established policy on the issue, and its insistence on nuclear disarmament. However, since nuclear disarmament is not on the agenda of the N-5 states, India would clearly have to take appropriate measures--including building a minimum deterrence capability--to ensure its security and political autonomy. In such a situation India would expect the ASEAN states to treat India's nuclear programme in the same light as they do those of the N-5.
(c) Territorial Problems Among the Regional States: A series of territorial problems continue to sour the relations and act as potential flash-points in the region. Problems exist between China and Japan, China and ASEAN, within ASEAN, Russia and Japan, India and China. In addition, the problems in regard to the unification of China and Korea are explosive in nature. The Spratlys dispute has already become a point of friction. In the coming years the nations have to evolve a system of confidence building, peacefully negotiated settlement on the basis of adjustments, and even neutral arbitration to resolve some of the issues if the region is to evolve into a zone of peace.
The effect of these three factors has been a rapid rise in defence expenditure, arms acquisition and modernisation of forces, especially naval, air power, and missiles throughout the region. This is already underway in China, Taiwan, the Korean peninsula and South-East Asia. India has always supported peaceful settlement of disputes, observance of international norms and legal procedures, diplomacy and non-aggressive defence policies. Its support would considerably strengthen the peace and security building efforts of the ASEAN in the Asia-Pacific region.
(ii) Economic Imperatives for Cooperation
While India has made substantial gains in some areas and maintained an over 5 per cent growth rate through the 1980s and 1990s, there are several important lessons that it can learn from the East Asian experience as a whole, including the ASEAN experience.
Rapid economic growth and increasing interdependence is shaping a new resurgence in Asia. Many of the states in the region share certain fundamental elements that have produced great success. These include a partnership between state and industry, high rates of savings and investments, high priority for education, health care, human resources development and infrastructure; the rigours of the market counter-balanced by rising incomes and care for the most disadvantaged; strong and efficient regulatory mechanisms to guide a market-friendly economy; the values of discipline and frugality--not different from the Protestant ethic that shaped the development of capitalism in Europe--and authoritarian rigour in the corporate, labour and political sectors to ensure stability. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and now Malaysia have shaped the contours and contents of an "East Asian economic model"--an engine of growth and a source of ideas for the development and modernisation of South-East Asia and China. Many of the ideas and experiences have relevance for a modernising India, though politically the democratic model the country has adopted demands that they be suitably adapted.
It is this all pervasive modernisation and growth, the shrinking of poverty and rising living standards, the rapid urbanisation and the development of the economic sinews of the state that has raised the promise of the Asian Century. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore are already among the advanced global economies. China, the ASEAN states and India are moving towards such a goal. This has enormous implications for the world. It will drastically cut down global poverty, raise incomes and open up huge markets for economic expansion globally. India as the second largest country in the world and ASEAN with its 400 million people are enormously important for shaping Asia's and the world's future. Their increasing cooperation is of immense strategic value.
Accompanying this growth has been a rapid process of regional integration--a key measure to pool resources, avoid internecine competition, enhance global competitive edge and reduce security problems. Throughout Asia--and the world--regional economic cooperation, even as states open out to the whole world, is the trend. This is born of a real need to consolidate the competitive capabilities of states by creating larger markets, pooling economic, technological, natural and human resources. The European Community and North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) are the products of this need even among the most developed techno-economic powers.
Intra-Asian trade has been rapidly growing in the past decade. The Association of South-East Asian States (ASEAN)/the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the South Asian Preferential Trade Area (SAPTA)/South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) are the two most advanced politico-economic efforts in the direction. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) which is seeking to promote free trade, the newly promoted Indian Ocean Rim, are major efforts at various stages of evolution. These are necessary organisations that promote trade, development and security building. By bringing together a group of neighbouring states that may have different kinds of frictions, regional organisations help expand the peace process and promote development. This dual feature of regionalism has been best underlined by the enormous success of the European Union process. Major nations such as France, Germany, Britain and Italy that were not at peace with each other for centuries have today developed a structure of interdependence in economics, defence and foreign policies, and research and development that rules out conflict. The same positive effects can be seen in the expanding ASEAN process which has bridged the previous divide between Indo-China and the rest of South-East Asia and dampened political and territorial problems among the member-states.
Comprehensive ties between India and the ASEAN states would, therefore, have a positive impact on Asia. Paul Krugman has rightly argued that the thrust for growth in South-East Asia in the next phase of development has to come from rising productivity and technological innovation. Close economic ties and technology cooperation have been identified as among the six key areas of Indo-ASEAN cooperation. Serious Indo-ASEAN technological collaboration is one way this can be achieved. However, current linkages are weak. Much work would have to done to improve telecommunication ties, shipping, air and railway links, banking, financial and tariff issues, and setting up institutionalised procedures before the two sides develop substantial economic interdependence.
(iii) Political Imperatives for Cooperation
(a) To Build Stable Multi-Ethnic States: Most Asian states--in this case India and the ASEAN countries--face a common problem: how to build stable, tolerant and secular state structures in conditions of multi-ethnicity and externally induced complications. Indeed through much of Asia and the world, multi-ethnicity is the dominant feature of states, and not the West European tradition of single-ethnic/nation state which itself is undergoing changes as a result of labour migration. India, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia are, therefore, the world's laboratories for ways to build stable, integrated states based on the shared identities of the people which at the same time preserve ethnic and cultural diversities.
Given the nature of migration and the presence of large communities of Chinese, Indians, Vietnamese, Thais, etc., in different parts of Asia, the issues of stable inter-state ties and intra-state ethnic stability are closely intertwined. Asia has to work towards the stability and security of strong, secular, federal multi-ethnic states if it is to remain secure and stable in the coming years. Cries of self-determination are a negative feature for Asia. What is needed instead is a protection of rights of all communities in decentralised, federal but integrated state systems.
(b) The Challenge of Democratisation: The other key political challenge that confronts both India and the ASEAN states--though in different ways--is how to build stable, democratic state structures in conditions of a rising tide of expectations for better life and greater liberty. Indeed, through much of Asia, the struggle between pressures for democratisation against existing authoritarian state structures or oppressive socio-political conditions is a reality. In East Asia, this has assumed a new twist with the division along democracy-authoritarian political lines. Human rights abuses are common in many of the states. In Myanmar, Indonesia, and Indo-China, there is a rising pressure for political change and expansion of political rights. Jail and labour conditions must improve throughout India and ASEAN, freedom of expression and dissent must be protected, and laws have to be reasonable and transparent.
Without such changes there is every prospect that socio-economic-political fissures will be aggravated. Demands for self-determination and human rights would also secure external backing, jeopardising national unity and sovereignty. Militancy, insurgency and terrorism have wracked many parts of India and the ASEAN region in the past and continue to do so even now. Only through steady democratisation, decentralisation and provision of caring and efficient governance can the integrity of state structures and stability be preserved.
The sharing of experiences among India and the ASEAN states and common endeavour in building secular, federal, decentralised and democratic political systems would enhance political stability and security throughout the region.
The year 1996 was a landmark year for Indo-ASEAN cooperation. In July, at the fifth ASEAN Summit, India became simultaneously a Dialogue Partner as well as a member of the ARF at the summit in Jakarta, Indonesia.
India and ASEAN have enormous prospects to advance cooperative political, economic, technological and military ties. The absence of conflict on vital issues and the presence of common challenges make it possible to rapidly expand ties between the two peoples. It is necessary that this window of opportunity to build strong relations be grasped, and institutional mechanisms created to advance them on a long-term basis, and impediments removed. The two sides had identified four broad sectors of cooperation during their Sectoral Dialogue Partnership phase--trade, investment, science and technology, and tourism. To these, two others have been added following India becoming a Dialogue Partner in July 1996--infrastructure and human resources. Overall, the following areas would clearly need focus through the coming years:
-- Regular high-level political dialogue and exchanges.
-- Rapid expansion of trade, investment and tourism ties.
-- Improving communication links: road, railroad, shipping and air links, and telecommunication links between India and the ASEAN states. A joint India-ASEAN effort to promote the Southern Eurasian Railway grid that would link South-East Asia through India and Central Asia to Europe would have enormous impact on raising trade and tourist links through Eurasia. Transportation of goods would become faster and there would be huge economic and peace dividends. Investments would not be large since much of the existing network would be utilised, upgraded where necessary and gaps filled out. High speed rail and modern communications would be used.
-- Expansion of military-to-military ties through high level visits and joint exercises; co-production of select categories of weapon systems.
-- Joint research and development of select dual-use technologies.
-- Setting up of a joint group to discuss proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and to control the flow of drugs and illegal arms.
-- Since 1991, India has paid special attention to its relations with the Asia-Pacific region: South-East Asia, Japan, China and Korea. Economic ties with Taiwan are growing following the establishment of trade and cultural offices. India became a Sectoral Dialogue Partner of ASEAN in 1992 and this improved relations. Prime Minister Rao's visit to South-East Asia in 1993 and 1994 and Foreign Minister I.K. Gujral's visits in 1996 have underlined the importance India attaches to its ties with ASEAN. The ASEAN states have reciprocated through a large number of visits--the most recent being that of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed.
In his statement in Jakarta in July 1996, Gujral laid out India's policy direction while calling for all-round cooperation. The expanding ties with ASEAN have also helped greater involvement in the Pacific region. India is keen to enter the APEC and is keen to participate in the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). These are new post-Cold War institutions. For India, participation in these bodies would contribute to the modernisation, prosperity and security building process in the region.
Indo-ASEAN trade and investment ties have grown rapidly in the 1990s (See Table 1). Indo-ASEAN trade in 1995 was valued at over $5 billion and approved investments at over $2 billion. There is immense scope for enhancing this further. Current Indian exports to ASEAN and investments would have to be raised systematically to secure greater balance. New Indian investments in the Philippines are positive recent developments. Some problems in enhancing cooperation flow from the slowness of decision-making and implementing structures in India. Some of these flow from infrastructural bottlenecks, others are systemic. However, it is also necessary that the ASEAN states provide political and organisational backing and thrusts to deepen the two-way process. Clearly close attention would have to be paid to existing bottlenecks and ways to overcome them if the opportunities for cooperation are to be translated into structural bonds.
However, ever since India became serious about building strong ties with East Asia and the Pacific states as part of its new post-Cold War economic and political strategy, it has faced certain hurdles, at times on the ground that it is not a Pacific power, that its participation in the Asia-Pacific cooperative ventures was intrinsically--however inexplicable--linked to that of Pakistan and since this would bring Indo-Pakistan tensions into the region, India would have to wait. Mental blocks driven by Cold War mindsets, religious motivations, and competitive feelings, have been obstacles to faster development of Indo-ASEAN ties.
Much of this is changing. Singapore and Thailand's growing interest in trade and investment ties; Malaysia's interest in expanding economic and defence relations; strong political ties with Vietnam; and friendly ties with Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia and Laos are positive factors. Indo-Myanmar relations have improved in recent years for pragmatic reasons despite continuing sympathy and support in India for Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. Existing defence relationships between India and the region are playing an important role in changing existing perceptions of each other. Moreover, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia cooperate within the G-15, and India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, and other South-East Asian states are members of the Non-Aligned Movement. Finally, India's entry into the ARF and its becoming a Dialogue Partner of ASEAN ahead of, and unlinked to, Pakistan has dealt a major blow to flawed linkage theories and removed an important irritant in Indo-ASEAN relations. Indeed, Pakistan does not have either a land or a maritime border with South-East Asia, few economic ties, low political relations, and no strategic, geo-political or economic relevance for Eastern Asia. The attempt to bring it in and link it to India's entry was detrimental to the growth of the relationship. India would similarly be sensitive to the attitude of the ASEAN states towards its entry into the APEC and ASEM.
On the security front, it is essential that the necessary steps India and ASEAN may take to enhance their external security do not cause misunderstanding. A constant dialogue on security issues, and defence cooperation would be required. Both India and the ASEAN states seek a nuclear weapon free world, but their perception of the utility of the NPT and the CTBT--which the ASEAN states have endorsed and India has not--or Nuclear Weapon Free Zones are different. India's nuclear posture will be guided by the need to ensure security and maintain its independence and autonomy in the international system. Clearly the existing non-proliferation regimes fail to address the threats posed by the nuclear weapon states, particularly China and Pakistan; they seek to perpetuate an adverse asymmetry of power between the N-5 and India with both political and security consequences; and they do not have an early disarmament as a goal.
It would be necessary to ensure that the steps India may take in the nuclear and missile sectors to preserve its security and political interests do not cause frictions and that ASEAN understands their logic and does not see them as aimed against it--since they are not. India understands ASEAN's effort to keep South-East Asia denuclearised through the South-East Asian Nuclear Free Zone (SEANFZ) but does not see Nuclear Free Zones as addressing the key issue of concern--the possession of nuclear weapons by the N-5. India, however, has supported the Zone of Peace Friendship and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) since 1972 as a measure that would enhance the overall security of South-East Asia.
A continuing dialogue between the two sides is also necessary so that their respective defence modernisation does not become a source of controversy as it was attempted over the Indian Navy in the 1980s. Grand military modernisation and power projection strategies by some of the major powers would inevitably lead to defensive responses by others. The ARF would have to deal with such issues so as to ensure that an arms race does not grip the region. Steady defence modernisation within a defensive military strategy is the desired framework for the Asia-Pacific states.
As far as India's approach towards military developments in the Asia-Pacific region is concerned, it has displayed prudence and understanding over the Spratlys issue, the Australia-Indonesia security agreement, and the modernisation of ASEAN defence forces. It has backed ASEAN's expansion to include all ten countries of South-East Asia and sees it as an important step for enhancing peace and security. India seeks a balanced, cooperative order in Asia. A strong India is in ASEAN's strategic interest, just as a strong ASEAN is in India's--as long as both are cooperating, interdependent, have no disputes, and are working together on regional and global issues.
What positions some of the ASEAN states adopt on the Kashmir issue would also be a factor in shaping the relationship. India has always treated the ethnic problems in South-East Asia with understanding and the yardstick of its own ethnic realities. Its only concern has been that no ethnic community must be discriminated against in any state. It has sought to resolve the Kashmir problem politically and democratically under conditions of a large and dangerous insurgency that has received full support from Pakistan. A failure by the ASEAN states to understand the complexities of the ethnic issues, the danger posed by armed secessionist movements and trans-border terrorism, and India's efforts to solve the grievances through political dialogue can only have a deletrious effect on relations.
Over the past years, India has improved and deepened its relations with all its neighbours in the subcontinent, the Gulf, and South-East Asia. Relations with China have improved and the two countries are engaged in resolving the outstanding disputes though the task is by no means easy. Ties with the US, Europe, Japan and Russia are growing and friendly. Over the past year, the new United Front government in New Delhi has through unilateral trade and tariff and other concessions been galavanising the SAARC and SAPTA process. Thus, a settlement of the Ganges waters sharing problem with Bangladesh has been attained. India has even unilaterally relaxed visa rules for many categories of Pakistani tourists. It has taken a keen interest in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) initiative. Relations with Pakistan alone have remained frozen though there are signs that the new Nawaz Sharif government may be interested in more meaningful talks to lower tensions and improve trade ties. India sees itself as a force for stability and peace in Asia and its role and capability is of immense strategic significance for the rest of the world.
The opportunities and need for Indo-ASEAN cooperation clearly far outweigh the scepticism and problems. Closer coordination and dialogue will help overcome differences from erupting and lay the foundations for strong Indo-ASEAN ties in the coming years.