Getting together all the ten Heads of State of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) grouping to participate as chief guests at the Republic Day ceremony is nothing short of a diplomatic coup. It signals India’s growing clout, particularly in the backdrop of increasing signs of territorial hegemony and muscle-flexing by China in the region. This is the first time that the country is hosting multiple chief guests at the Republic Day parade. The presence of 10 Heads of State shows that the decades-old bond between India and the regional grouping has reached a new strategic level. The changing regional dynamics provides an apt context to the gathering. Interestingly, an India-ASEAN tableau formed part of the Republic Day parade. The ASEAN leaders participated in the ASEAN-India commemorative summit to mark the 25th anniversary of the establishment of sectoral dialogue between the two sides. Counter-terrorism strategies, military cooperation and bilateral financial support were the issues that dominated the agenda and the summit resolved to uphold the maritime domain. India’s “Look East” policy reinforces its ancient links with Southeast Asia through enhanced political, security, economic and cultural ties. For the first time, India has taken up the issue of establishing a special maritime mechanism with all ASEAN members. The joint statement issued after the summit spoke about common concerns over the South China Sea and reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, stability, maritime safety and security, freedom of navigation in the region and other lawful uses of the seas and unimpeded lawful maritime commerce.
There are growing concerns among several ASEAN members over China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea where it has stepped up creation of military infrastructure. Beijing’s consistent repudiation of international law, its bullying tactics towards its smaller ASEAN neighbours, its dilatory tactics in finalising a Code of Conduct in the region and ensuring adherence to accepted norms form the crux of the common concerns in the region. Among the Asian countries, India alone has the size, economic potential, military capability and civilisational depth to serve as an effective counter to China’s hegemony in the region. The mention of the term “cross-border terrorism” – an oblique reference to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism – in the Delhi Declaration is a boost to India’s long-held position on the issue. The declaration spoke about countering cross-border movement of terrorists as part of a comprehensive approach to fight the menace. It also reaffirmed the members’ commitment to deepen cooperation in “combating terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, violent extremism and radicalisation through information-sharing, law enforcement cooperation and capacity building under the existing ASEAN-led mechanisms”. India and ASEAN members are woven together into one common fabric by the threads of culture, commerce and connectivity.