India-China Relations and ASEAN: A Role Theory Explanation

China-India Brief #107

Centre on Asia and Globalisation, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

On January 26, 2018, New Delhi will host the leaders of all ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries as chief guests of India’s annual Republic Day celebrations. Traditionally, the chief guests are chosen after careful consideration and are usually a reflection of New Delhi’s most important political interests. The decision to host the ASEAN heads of states not only illustrates the importance placed on Southeast Asia by New Delhi, but also its interest in strengthening ties with the region.

These developments take place at a time of China’s unmatched rise and a growing sense of mistrust between New Delhi and Beijing. Many argue that India’s growing engagement with the ASEAN countries is primarily driven by the China factor. While China’s relevance cannot be denied, this article presents an alternative viewpoint based on role theory and its notion of National Role Conception (NRC). A NRC can be described as a country’s self-perception of its role in the international or regional system. In the words of K. J. Holsti — who championed the use of NRCs to understand a state’s international behaviour — an NRC is the policymaker’s “image of the appropriate orientations or functions of their state toward, or in, the external environment.” NRCs act as guiding templates for countries to follow and on which to base their behaviour.

This article argues that India and China’s NRCs have changed from being ‘developing countries’ to that of a ‘leading power’ and ‘great power’. As the two countries align their foreign policy behaviour with their newly-defined roles, they continue to compete with each other for influence in various regions, in this case the ASEAN region.

Changing NRCs: The case of India and China

India’s NRC has continued to evolve throughout its history. A ‘developing country’ until the late 1990s, it has embraced the role conception of a ‘major power’ beginning in the early 2000s. Most recently, New Delhi asserted its aspirations towards taking on the role of a ‘leading power’ that acts as a “system shaper”. Although India may not be living up to the demands of its NRC as a leading power, it is poised to play such a role in the coming decades. India’s leading power aspirations have serious ramifications for its foreign policy behaviour and regional engagements. Before playing a crucial role on a global stage, New Delhi will have to position itself as a pivotal player in Asia. As a result, India’s new enthusiasm in engaging with Asia’s sub-regions, particularly Southeast Asia (SEA), can be seen almost as a natural progression of its evolving foreign policy.

Interestingly, there has been a convergence between India’s transforming NRC with China’s rise and the latter’s changing NRC. For most of its contemporary history, China has identified itself as a ‘developing country’. With its meteoric rise over the last two decades, however, it has begun to ascribe to itself the NRC of a ‘great power’. This change is reflected in how Beijing deals with various regional players and other major powers in the international system. China’s phenomenal economic growth and increasing military assertiveness have led to its forceful claims in the South China Sea and expanding list of core interests. Coinciding with the perceived decline of the West, China is expanding its forays into Southeast Asia, the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, and Africa. Through its ambitious Belt and Route Initiative (BRI), and in conjunction with its economic statecraft, Beijing hopes to transform itself into a great power with Chinese characteristics.

That Asia’s two huge neighbours are simultaneously embracing newer and more ambitious NRCs is bound to result in overlapping areas of interest. As India and China adopt newer NRCs and direct their efforts towards performing their stipulated roles, they are interacting with each other in new theatres, where they compete for resources and influence. This remains the crux of India-China dealings in the ASEAN region.

India-China competition is further complicated by their historical territorial dispute, periodic flare-ups along the disputed border, and China’s military partnership with Pakistan. Inspired by the so-called Malacca Dilemma, China has sought to amplify its influence in the Indian Ocean region – India’s backyard and primary area of strategic interest. China’s take-over of the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, establishment of Gwadar port in Pakistan, and efforts to undercut Indian influence in the region have only led to greater mistrust between the two giant neighbours. Similarly, India’s growing economic connections with SEA and expanding naval presence in the region are a source of concern for Beijing.

Look East to Act East

India’s relationship with ASEAN countries have traditionally fallen under the purview of India’s Look East Policy (LEP) and now Act East Policy (AEP). LEP was introduced during the early 1990s, following the end of the Cold War and liberalisation of the Indian economy. The first phase of LEP (1992-2003) saw limited results, with success mostly in terms of a strengthened political understanding between India and SEA.

The policy began to pick up pace in its second phase starting in 2003. This period saw more overt assertions about India’s NRC as a major power in the region. India’s strategic interests began to expand as it took on its new role conception. In the years after 2003, the LEP came to encompass more and more states, and its focus on economic engagement was expanded to include security cooperation. India’s confidence was boosted by its economic growth and support from important players like the US, Japan, and Australia, among others.

India’s growing stakes in the Southeast Asian region coincided with China’s rising economic and military strength. New Delhi became alarmed at Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and expanding naval footprint in regions like the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. India’s growing dependence on sea lanes of communication for its expanding trade ties and extraordinary energy needs meant that China’s actions potentially threatened its own strategic interests.

Despite the initial flurry of activity – high level visits, signing of important agreements, and enhanced naval cooperation with ASEAN members – New Delhi failed to capitalise on its gains and allowed the LEP’s momentum to slow down. This somewhat tarnished India’s image as a dependable partner – an image it had painstakingly sought to cultivate in the region. Undeterred, India launched the AEP in November 2014. The new policy was designed to address the inadequacies of the LEP and allow India to re-emerge as a serious player in SEA and beyond. Under the AEP, India has been fortifying its relations with the ASEAN countries through space cooperation, military sales, joint production, capacity building, and training.

India views ASEAN as a springboard from which to launch its forays into East Asia. Support from ASEAN members, in New Delhi’s view, would help legitimise India’s status as a pivotal regional power and facilitate its NRC as a leading power. Additionally, ASEAN-led forums are central to India’s idea of a viable regional security order. For India, a favourable regional environment would be one where no single power (especially China) would dominate. Despite its deficiencies, the consensus-based ‘ASEAN way’ was seen as an appropriate way to achieve such a regional landscape. Moreover, India and most ASEAN states share many common interests. Both are concerned by the potential threat from an increasingly powerful China, and there is a convergence of views over trade issues such as the safety and security of the global commons.

In the coming decades, India will undoubtedly continue to strengthen its relations with ASEAN. Such a policy, however, should not be regarded as solely driven by China. A better way to perceive the relationship would be through the unit of NRCs. As India marches towards its dream of becoming a leading power, and Beijing continues to regard itself as a great power, the two countries will continue to interact and compete in multiple sub-regions, not just in SEA. How to manage the complex mix of conflict and cooperation will remain a challenge for both India and China.

Source: Centre on Asia and Globalisation, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, December 13, 2017 – January 09, 2018 

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