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Neither Manmohan Singh, the octogenarian and rather bookish Indian prime minister, nor Hun Sen, the former Khmer Rouge guerrilla-turned-prime minister of Cambodia, is in the habit of watching recreational motor rallies.
Yet there they both were – along with the Sultan of Brunei and other dignitaries from India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – at the finish line of the 8,000km “Asean-India Car Rally” in New Delhi last week.
The improbable prime ministerial interest in this rugged event, which coincided with a well-attended summit of Asian leaders, is the latest sign of the strengthening ties between the world’s largest democracy and the 10 Asean nations that lie to the east.
Both India and Asean, wary of China’s growing economic and military power, are eager to reconstruct a relationship with deep historical roots but only tenuous links in modern times. The US and Japan, equally concerned by China’s rise and its expansive claims to much of the South China Sea, are applauding from the sidelines.
Economically and strategically, the combination of India and Asean is no small matter. As Mr Singh said in his speech to open the summit, the two zones comprise 1.8bn people – a quarter of humanity – and have a combined gross domestic product of $3.8tn.
Trade between the two is modest but growing fast, having increased tenfold in the past decade. India and Asean have finalised a trade agreement in services and investment, to complement the one in goods, and are aiming for two-way trade of more than $100bn a year by 2015.
The recent opening to the world of the Asean member Myanmar, on India’s eastern border, has prompted much excited talk of a “Trilateral Highway” that would link India by road to Myanmar and Thailand, and also to Laos and Cambodia – although the rally drivers’ experiences of shocking roads suggest much work remains to be done.
But it is the strategic and especially the maritime aspect of the India-Asean relationship that has taken on a new urgency since China began pressing its contested claims to the South China Sea – an issue that provoked a public row between China and the Philippines at the East Asia Summit in November.
“The India-Asean engagement began with a strong economic emphasis, but it is also becoming increasingly strategic,” Mr Singh said last week. “India and Asean nations should intensify their engagement for maritime security and safety, for freedom of navigation and for peaceful settlement of maritime disputes in accordance with international law.”
These were not just words. Less than three weeks earlier, Admiral D.K. Joshi, the Indian navy chief, had said India was prepared to send ships to defend its interests in the South China Sea, where India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corporation is engaged in exploration off Vietnam.
A few days later, Vice-Admiral Su Zhiqian, a Chinese naval commander, was quoted as saying in Sri Lanka that his navy would “actively maintain the peace and stability of the Indian Ocean”.
This close interest in each other’s home waters is an important reason why the two big powers have been vigorously courting the southeast Asia region that straddles the two seas.
India and Asean have each known for years that they need to diversify their trading partnerships and alliances so as not to become too dependent on the Chinese economy, or too vulnerable to its resurgent military power.
Revived tensions in the South China Sea have given new impetus to this move towards more co-operation. “Certainly it has regained a greater edge because of what has been happening over the past year and a half,” says Shyam Saran, a former Indian foreign secretary. “There is no doubt that there is heightened nervousness among Asean countries.”
Asean is a disparate group, and usually only Vietnam or the Philippines will speak openly of what they see as the threat from China. India, meanwhile, is careful not to offend its giant neighbour, with which it fought – and lost – a short border war in 1962.
But when Mr Singh speaks of “unsettled questions and unresolved issues in our region”, and when Asean and India establish a “strategic partnership” and jointly call for “unfettered movement of trade in accordance with international law” – as they did last week – it is a safe bet that China is on their minds.
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