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Anmol Anand asked: Why does India focus on ASEAN Centrality in its Indo-Pacific strategy? What are the challenges involved in it?

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  • Udai Bhanu Singh replies: ASEAN Centrality means that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) must be in the driver’s seat and be responsible for formulating a common vision and implementing it. New Delhi has consistently maintained its support for ASEAN Centrality. India’s Indo-Pacific strategy works in tandem with its Act East Policy, with ASEAN Centrality as its basis. India's initiative of Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) and Indo-Pacific Oceans' Initiative (IPOI) seeks to harmonise its Act East Policy with the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP).

    But ASEAN Centrality is facing strong headwinds today. The current challenges are significantly different from what the region faced when the ASEAN was founded in 1967. This is not so merely because of the pandemic or the Ukraine crisis. First, new middle powers have arisen in the region (Australia, Japan, India) whose aspirations, apart from that of the rising power China, need to be factored in. Second, the Sino-US rivalry could deepen the fault lines within ASEAN as nations are forced to choose sides. Third, the smaller ASEAN States such as Cambodia because of their dependence on China could pose a threat to ASEAN unity. For example, at the Phnom Penh ASEAN meeting, held in July 2012, ASEAN failed to issue a joint statement because of Cambodia’s insistence on not allowing any mention of the South China Sea dispute in it. Fourth, individual ASEAN States (and even ASEAN) look to China for investment in infrastructure through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Fifth, new minilateral arrangements such as Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) and AUKUS (Australia, the UK, and the US) appear to threaten existing ASEAN security mechanisms like the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting–Plus (ADMM–Plus) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). Sixth, two important ASEAN Dialogue Partners—the US and India—have dropped out of the ambit of newly emergent economic forums—the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). India is also seeking a review of the ASEAN–India Free Trade Agreement.

    As India and ASEAN celebrate 2022 as the ‘ASEAN–India Friendship Year’, marking 30 years of partnership, the two sides will have to continuously evolve a creative approach to deal with the emerging challenges in the years ahead.

    Please also refer to my following MP-IDSA publication.

    Udai Bhanu Singh, “ASEAN–India Summit 2021: Outcomes and Prospects”, MP-IDSA Issue Brief, 29 November 2021.

    Posted on 20 April 2022

    Views expressed are of the expert and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or the Government of India.