India and Asean nations boost ties as China grows increasingly assertive

22/12/2012- South Asian giant looks to cement ties with members of Asean as China's increasingly assertive behaviour prompts regional concern

Trade ministers from 10 Southeast Asian nations attend the India-ASEAN Business Fair held in New Delhi, India. Photo: EPA

The dozens of vehicles that roared into northeast India this week on a rally from Indonesia symbolise deepening ties between the South Asian giant and Southeast Asia, but the dreadful roads along several parts of the 8,000 kilometre journey suggest how much remains to be done.

The caravan crossed jungles and mountains in eight nations before reaching the remote Indian state of Manipur, bordering Myanmar, in an event promoting a high-level meeting between India and leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in New Delhi today and tomorrow.

"The roads crumbled to begin with and then ceased to exist," said participants Bijoy Kumar and Vinod Nookla in a blog.

Participants can only hope that proceedings at the meeting in New Delhi won't be so rocky. The event will mainly be a ceremonial affair to mark 20 years of co-operation, India's Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said. But it is held against the backdrop of Chinese assertiveness in the potentially oil- and gas-rich South China Sea.

Some Asean countries contest claims by China in the waters. The United States has called for calm, but some Asean nations are also looking to India to get involved.

"They want India to play a larger role. Those concerns are only increasing given the uncertain situation that is emerging," said C. Raja Mohan, a strategic affairs expert at the Observer Research Foundation think tank.

Trade between India and the 10-member Asean bloc was up to US$80 billion last year compared with US$47 billion in 2008.

But India's regional role is dwarfed by that of China, with trade worth US$363 billion with Asean countries in 2011 in an already established free-trade area.

"What we need is far greater connectivity," Khurshid said in an interview, mentioning roads, railways and flights as areas needing work. "There is still a lot that can done,"

India walks a delicate line to balance its increasingly close partnership with Washington as President Barack Obama steps up the US presence in Asia, and the reality of living next door to China.

India's need to lock down energy supplies for its rapidly growing industrial sector are pushing it to gradually step up military activities in the region with more joint exercises and visits.

This month, India's navy chief said his force was ready to deploy naval vessels to the South China Sea to protect its oil-exploration interests.

India is exploring an oil and gas block with Vietnam in the disputed waters (*) and in future is likely to bring more liquefied natural gas through the Malacca Straits.

Ian Storey, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said India had yet to impress Asean partners, despite its strong ties to Vietnam.

"India is not a serious player in Southeast Asia. It has aspirations to be a player, but it has a long way to go," he said. "A common view is that India talks the talk but doesn't walk the walk."

South China Morning Post

(*): It's not the disputed waters, this erea's under the waters of Vietnam's sovereignty accordance to The International Law of the Sea