Last month Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the annual January 26 Republic Day parade to symbolically welcome the 10 member states from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) into New Delhi’s geopolitical orbit. But there’s neither a binding covenant nor any firm commitment between South Asia’s upcoming world power and the economic bloc next door.
At the head of the military parade that same morning 10 Indian soldiers each carried an ASEAN country’s flag–those of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The gesture was seen as a bold response to China’s own attempts at cultivating these same states, a strategy that can diffuse the risk of conflict over territorial matters, i.e. the South China Sea.
Although the 50-year-old ASEAN always maintained cordial ties with India these never deepened in any meaningful way. This won’t change soon for the simple reason India’s trade and investments with the bloc are dismal compared to China’s ballooning commerce with the ASEAN states. Even from a narrow defense/security perspective there’s little to suggest an authentic Indian grand strategy is now in motion with the goal of establishing a bulwark against Beijing’s rise in the Asia-Pacific.
So far only two ASEAN states maintain active military-to-military channels with India and the extent of these are quite modest. The prosperous city state of Singapore spent decades forging agreements and schedules for joint exercises with the Indian military. So far this has paid off with a long-term training regime allowing the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to conduct drills with their Indian counterparts.
This is why Singaporean fighter pilots have access to the Kalaikunda airbase until the year 2021. Singaporean armor units can also fight mock battles with Indian tanks and IFVs while Singaporean warships do join the Indian navy on maritime patrols. It wasn’t a coincidence that Singapore’s head of state Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose country is the ASEAN Chair for 2018, stood beside Modi during the Republic Day parade.
Meanwhile, Vietnam is a new-ish ally. The ASEAN member facing the highest risk of war with China spent the past decade slowly modernizing its armed forces and sought India’s help in the process. To this day it remains a matter of speculation whether or not Hanoi signed and paid for the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. Beyond arms deals Indian advisers are openly working with Vietnamese airmen and sailors to familiarize them with operating Su-30 multirole fighters and Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines.
New Delhi’s commitments grow thin across the rest of ASEAN. For years now it has tried and failed to build an alliance with Myanmar, whose democratic transition is overshadowed by ongoing conflict with its ethnic minorities, and an unimportant treaty for training Tatmadaw personnel is all it has to show after so long. Arms sales are scarce and so far India only managed delivering token amounts of surplus equipment to Naypyidaw in the last 12 years. This could still change as the acquisition of lightweight torpedoes and other naval equipment are currently being finalized.
As Iain Marlow explained in a detailed takedown on Bloomberg India’s prospects as an arms exporter–whether to ASEAN or anywhere else–are very disappointing and the fault lies at home. Between a dysfunctional procurement system and a complete lack of support, matched with even worse timetables, local weapons development is a running joke. One chart sourced from Sweden’s non-profit arms traffic publisher SIPRI showed a distinct flat line for Indian military sales abroad between 2005 and 2016. This is a painful contrast to the actual scale of India’s state-owned manufacturing sector, which produces aircraft carriers, ballistic missiles and satellites.
But there’s hope. For New Delhi to reach out and build a network of partners in ASEAN is far from difficult and the siren call of aid and investment will work its magic attracting Southeast Asia’s capitals away from Beijing. Besides, if it tries really hard India can afford to sustain allies and broker lasting treaties. There’s also the so-called “Quad-Alliance” involving Australia, India, Japan, and the US that has the potential to not only grow but create new military capabilities among its members.