India-ASEAN Partnership: Zooming into the Question of Security Cooperation

    • By,
      Peter Sotei – Student, Kautilya

“Development and security are interdependent and cannot be separated.” – Helen James

The 30th-year-old India-ASEAN partnership or friendship was celebrated last year, 2022. Reflecting over 30 years of partnership, the India-ASEAN partnership has been one of the most robust and developing regional partnerships across the broad spectrum of cultural, political, economic, social, and security cooperation based on mutual benefits. Despite having very strong cultural and civilizational linkages in the past, however, after the colonial period, the ideological differences between India and ASEAN disrupted their relationship, which made them almost disconnected. The ideological differences meant that the ASEAN countries started leaning towards the United States, while India was more inclined towards the Soviet Union until 1992. The collapse of the Soviet Union, India’s long-term ally in the international arena, the gulf war crisis, skyrocketing oil prices, and broken rupees-rubal agreements left India alone in international relations, which compelled India to search for new partners. India changed its foreign policy as per the order of world politics as it shifted from a bipolar world to a unipolar world, which made India adjust its foreign policies to match up to the changing dynamics of world politics. India became a sectoral dialogue partner with ASEAN in 1992 and a full dialogue partner in 1995, which expects cooperation in various activities in various sectors after the dialogue. In the following year, 1996, India became a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which is the platform where countries discuss security issues in Asia and develop cooperative measures to enhance peace, stability, and security. The partnership between the two has gradually become more robust and broader than ever before, extending from trade to security cooperation. Security and development are interrelated and interdependent things a country can never achieve one without the other, particularly in this era. It is required for countries to cooperate for security, which India and the ASEAN are fully aware of and have brought under practice.

It is essential to look at the security cooperation from two geographical landscapes; maritime and land. Firstly, maritime security cooperation is critical for significant trade through the seas. Therefore, peace and stability in the maritime region is crucial for the economic growth of emerging countries like India and other ASEAN member states. Today, India has participated actively in the ASEAN Defense Ministerial Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), which allowed for a series of bilateral and multilateral navy and armed exercises. India and the ASEAN have also moved forward in maritime security cooperation such as countering piracy, robbery of ships, rescue operations, etc. Regarding land security cooperation, India’s land security cooperation with the ASEAN means security cooperation with Myanmar, as Myanmar is the only ASEAN member that shares land-border with India. Today, It is still quite challenging and complex for security cooperation because there are many insurgencies or armed groups along the Indian border and also because of the instability of Myanmar, which undermines India’s policies of reconnecting with the ASEAN like the “Look East Policy,” which later changed into the “Act East Policy” with a more action-oriented policy that includes project like the India-Myanmar-Thailand Highway, Kalandan Multimodal Project in Myanmar. India and Myanmar Armies signed the landmark Defense Co- operation in 2019. In the past, there have been joint operations between India’s and Myanmar’s armies, codenamed ‘Operation Sunrise’ to fight against the militants along their border, but only some were successful. India has also provided military training and conducted joint military exercises with the Myanmar militaries, called the India-Myanmar Bilateral Military Exercise IMBAX-2017 and IMBEX 2018-19. One of the reasons for the lack of extensive cooperation was that it was not easy for India, as the largest democratic country in the world, to take a call for conducting joint military exercises and operations openly with the Myanmar military, which is violating human rights against its citizens. Nevertheless, from recent years onwards, India seemed to have moved boldly to engage with the Myanmar military instead of Myanmar’s democratic forces to achieve India’s national security.

On the other side, many studies have also pointed out that In recent years, Myanmar has allowed China to make a gas project exploration in the Rakhine State. A long crude oil pipeline from Kyauk-Phyu in the Rakhine State of Myanmar to the Yunnan State of China was constructed to export 22 million tons of crude oil annually. ; however, some countries, mainly India, have accused China of ‘expansionism’ as China has tried to construct naval bases in the Indian Ocean, and also on Coco Island, a territory of Myanmar, which China can use as a base to attack India and thus, become a direct security threat to India in the future. Moreover, there has also been some accusation against China for arming the insurgencies in North Eastern India through Myanmar’s Nothern Ethnic Armed Organization (EAOs), which are almost under the control of China, to create insurgency and instability in the northeastern part of India. Since the onset of the South China Sea disputes many ASEAN countries have become alert in security matters, and they are upgrading their security sector. These initiatives of militarisation made by China have become common security threats for both India and ASEAN. This has brought India and the ASEAN closer to security cooperation and made their partnership stronger and of vital importance in the present day.

Since China aims to become the superpower in the region with the policy of “containment of emerging powers in the region” India and ASEAN must stand together against China to balance power and stability in the region. However, security cooperation between India and ASEAN is complex and challenging. Therefore, the India-ASEAN security cooperation needs to be nurtured and developed more to become the center of maintaining the region’s peace, and stability, and to aid sustainable development.