India–ASEAN Relations

Publication Date01 Jan 2017
AuthorShankari Sundararaman
India–ASEAN Relations:
‘Acting’ East in the
Shankari Sundararaman1
The terminology of the Indo-Pacific is beginning to gain more relevance in
recent times with several countries referring to this term in their official pro-
nouncements. Widely understood to be the region that stretches from the
western Indian Ocean to the western Pacific Ocean, this term has come to
mean different things to the states that constitute this strategic and geopolitical
concept. For India, its foreign policy initiative called the Look East and Act East
policy is centred around the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
and extends to the countries beyond the ASEAN region to East Asia and the
Pacific. This article attempts to understand the Act East policy as the core
of India’s engagement eastwards, focusing on four broad themes: first, how
do regional states look at the terminology of the Indo-Pacific? Second, what
constitutes India’s core understanding of this term, and what are India’s over-
arching priorities in the region? Third, how does the Act East policy towards
the ASEAN form the core of India’s Indo-Pacific strategy, and in the fourth
concluding theme, how does the return of the Quadrilateral Dialogue (Quad)
implicate the future of India–ASEAN relations?
Look east policy, act east policy, Indo-Pacific, India, Southeast Asia, foreign policy
For over a decade, the terminology of the Indo-Pacific has been in strategic par-
lance, contributing to a critical shift in understanding strategic implications that
are affecting both the regional and the global order. Indian foreign policy too has
International Studies
54(1–4) 62–81
2018 Jawaharlal Nehru University
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/0020881718787575
1 Chairperson, Centre for Indo-Pacic Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru
University, New Delhi, India.
Corresponding author:
Shankari Sundararaman, Chairperson, Centre for Indo-Pacic Studies, School of International Studies,
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi-110067, India.
Sundararaman 63
seen this terminology enter into the official domain with the predominant use of
the term both in official speeches and in documents suggesting a changed percep-
tion from the use of the term ‘Asia-Pacific’. The connotations behind this shift are
critical to understand, especially given that India’s foreign policy and engagement
eastwards necessitates an understanding of what this term means for not just India
but several other countries, which lie to India’s east. Conceptualizing the Indo-
Pacific will necessarily have to take into account several factors, such as the eco-
nomic shift eastwards moving from the Atlantic to the Pacific century; the rise of
China and India; the linking of the maritime extents of the Indian and Pacific
oceans as a single strategic unit; the US pivot to Asia and the rebalancing in light
of China’s rise; and more recently, the revival of the Quadrilateral Dialogue
(Quad), a decade after it was originally conceived. The commonality in all these
factors that drive the conceptualization of the Indo-Pacific revolves around the
oceanic extents of what was earlier called the Asia-Pacific and is now being
referred to as the Indo-Pacific or the Indo-Asia-Pacific.
With the rise of China and the US rebalancing since 2011, the wider region is
witnessing several shifts among which major power rivalry between China and the
USA is clearly going to be the main focus of the power transitions in the Indo-
Pacific (Sundararaman, 2015, pp. 127–140). As this shift occurs, there is also a
diversification of interests and challenges of several countries that define this
regional extent which was referred to as a ‘broader Asia’ by Japanese Prime Minister
Shinzo Abe when he described the Indo-Pacific as the coupling of the oceanic
extents of the Indian and Pacific oceans (Abe, 2007). This diversification indicates
clearly that the region is no longer contained within the extents of geography but
that the compulsion of geopolitics is driving the strategic choices of the countries
within the region, thereby defining the conceptualization of the Indo-Pacific.
How the terminology of the Indo-Pacific becomes relevant to individual coun-
tries is dictated by the changing nature of the regional geopolitics, which not only
drives the change in the regional order but in the emerging future global order as
well. Much of this shift relates to the rise of China and the manner in which coun-
tries within the region are conceptualizing the Indo-Pacific within the background
of major power shifts and transitions. This article attempts to look at the manner
in which the construction of the Indo-Pacific is taking shape and is divided into
four sections—the first section focuses on how regional states are looking at the
construct of the Indo-Pacific and what are the different concerns driving states to
adapt to the terminology of the Indo-Pacific. The second section focuses on the
manner in which India is responding to the conceptualization of the Indo-Pacific
where there is a move to look beyond the limitations of geography to one that is
encompassing both geopolitics and strategy in its understanding of regionalism.
The third section looks at how India’s foreign policy concerns in the region will
be centred on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as the core of
its Act East policy. This section looks at the evolution of the Look East policy
(LEP) and its shift to the Act East policy with a clear focus on the building of
strategic partnership with the ASEAN. The final section looks at the emergence of
the Quad and its implications for regional stability and security in the Indo-Pacific.
While there has been some analysis that the Quad may indicate the decline of

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