Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to the crowd during the 68th Republic Day parade in New Delhi on January 26, 2017. Motorbike stunt riders and herds of camels wowed the crowds gathered in the centre of New Delhi January 26 to celebrate Republic Day, an annual showcase of India's military hardware and cultural diversity. After the presidents of the United States and France attended the last two extravaganzas, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan was this year's chief guest as everyone from elite troops to schoolchildren paraded down the landmark Rajpath boulevard. / AFP / Money SHARMA (Photo credit should read MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 68th Republic Day parade in New Delhi © AFP

India’s Republic Day parade is a popular public spectacle: a display of military hardware, leavened by cheesy floats and folk-dancing troupes. It is also the annual highlight of India’s diplomatic calendar, given New Delhi’s decades-old tradition of inviting a strategically important foreign leader as the parade’s “chief guest”.

When India’s advanced missiles and tanks roll down New Delhi’s Raj Path for this year’s parade on Friday morning, the VIP dais — graced in recent years by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, former US President Barack Obama, and former French President François Hollande — will be heavier than usual. 

Rather than a single high-profile foreign dignitary, New Delhi is hosting 10 leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a strategically important region with which India is seeking to deepen ties to counter China’s ever increasing sway. 

“India does not want an Asia that is dominated by China,” says Dhruva Jaishankar, a fellow at Brookings India, a think-tank. “And a big part of where that will be determined is Southeast Asia.”

India’s feelings are not unreciprocated. While China is Southeast Asia’s biggest trading partner, it is also a hegemon that many regional elites privately fear or loathe for its heavy-handed use of military and economic clout. 

The South China Sea is a particular flashpoint, given Beijing’s build-up of artificial islands for potential military use. India has openly sided with Southeast Asia in the dispute, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi criticising China’s military build-up as evidence of an “18th-century expansionist mindset”.

It is that sense of India’s growing resolve in the face of Chinese assertiveness that has caught Asean’s attention.

“What [Southeast Asian countries] are seeking — and have — in India is a partner that stands up for a rules-based international order, and that’s particularly important in the maritime space,” says Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. 

“In India, they see a global giant — a huge country that is not as big a behemoth as China on trade, but one that is willing to say to Vietnam and the Philippines, ‘We are with you on this question’,” she says. “They are ready to stand up to China.”

The idea of an “ Indo-Pacific” region with India playing a more active strategic role has also been endorsed by Japan, Australia, and US President Donald Trump, who spoke of a “new chapter for the Indo-Pacific” at a recent Pacific Rim summit. 

“We are talking about a new paradigm for what used to be called the Asia-Pacific,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, associate professor of political science at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University. “When India is included, Southeast Asian countries see it as a potential giant that could counterbalance China. They are looking for some hedging as well.” 

When it comes to commercial and economic ties, New Delhi’s hesitant engagement with Asean over the past 25 years has been underwhelming. Bilateral trade was just $58bn a year in 2015, substantially less than Asean’s trade with either Hong Kong or Taiwan.

In contrast, Asean is bound to China by vast networks of integrated supply chains, with bilateral trade forecast to reach $1tn in 2020.

India lacks the financial depth to match China’s vast credit lines for infrastructure funding, or underwriting bonds. But even New Delhi’s more modest goals to boost connectivity — such as a trilateral highway between India, Myanmar and Thailand, first agreed 15 years ago — remain unrealised.

“There is a bit of angst about the gap between promises and delivery,” says Vishnu Prakash, a retired Indian diplomat. “We do not have the resources China has and we cannot or should not try to compete there. But whatever we promise, at least we should be able to deliver on that.”

But India is stepping up security co-operation with key Southeast Asian countries, albeit in small but symbolically important steps. These include training combat pilots and submariners from several Asean countries, a new naval agreement with Singapore, growing technical co-operation, and patrolling east of the Malacca by the Indian navy. 

Many are expecting India to pursue a stronger defence partnership with key Asean countries in the coming years — possibly in conjunction with other like-minded Pacific powers, such as Australia and Japan, concerned about China’s rise. 

“On the security front there have been more developments than is often appreciated,” says Mr Jaishankar. “There is no expectation that India should match China one for one. But if you can provide even part of an alternative, that is helpful.”

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