As India prepares to host the leaders of the 10 ASEAN nations for a commemorative summit next month, a new book says that the election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister has brought about a change to the relationship between India and the regional grouping and that New Delhi can provide strategic balance in the bloc given the geopolitical rivalry between Washington and Beijing.
"The election of Prime Minister Modi created a unique window of opportunity to shift the ASEAN-India relationship," Kishore Mahbubani and Jeffery Sng write in "The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace".
"In PM Modi India has a strong leader who is willing to take risky long-term strategic decisions," the authors state.
While Mahbubani is Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in the National University of Singapore, Sng is a writer and well-known diplomat.
The book comes in the year when India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are celebrating the silver jubilee of their dialogue partnership and the grouping itself is celebrating the golden jubilee of its formation.
With New Delhi focusing on ties with Southeast Asia after converting its Look East Policy into an Act East Policy, in a unique first, all the leaders of 10 ASEAN nations, after participating in the commemorative summit here, will collectively attend the Republic Day celebrations on January 26, 2018, as chief guests.
In the book, Mahbubani and Sng argue that India was a latecomer in developing ties with Southeast Asian nations.
"Even though it (India) became politically decolonised in 1947, it remained colonised for several decades and continued to look towards Europe and America for inspiration," the book caustically states.
During the Cold War era, while India drifted towards the Soviet camp, the ASEAN nations remained clearly pro-American, it says.
It was only in 2012, at the 20th anniversary commemorative summit, that the ASEAN-India Vision Document was adopted and the relationship was elevated to that of a strategic partnership.
"As ASEAN comes under renewed stress from the growing geopolitical rivalry between the US and China, India could provide a strategic balance," Mahbubani and Sng opine. "India has an opportunity to develop a 20-year plan to enhance its relationship with ASEAN."
Elaborating on this, the book says that the worst-case scenario for ASEAN would be a schism resulting from member-countries being forced to choose between China and the US.
"If this rivalry intensifies, the only power that can provide ASEAN with a geopolitical buffer is India," it notes.
Stating that the India-ASEAN relationship rested on the three pillars of culture, economy and geopolitics, the book, however, adds: "A tripod is stable when all its legs are equally strong, but the tripod supporting the ASEAN-India relationship still needs a great deal of work."
The authors point out that as a trading partner of ASEAN, India ranked seventh below China, the European Union (EU), Japan, the US, South Korea and Australia.
Stressing on the need to boost cultural ties, the book refers to the fact that, of the 10 ASEAN nations, only Vietnam and the Philippines do not have cultural roots in Indian civilisation, though there are people who believe that even Vietnam had cultural links with the eastern Indian state of Odisha dating back to a thousand years.
"No other partner, not the US, not Europe, and not even China, can match India's long historical association with Southeast Asia," the authors assert.
Apart from India, the book also describes ASEAN's relationship with the other great powers -- China, the US, the EU, and Japan.
Dwelling on the strengths of ASEAN as a regional bloc, Mahbubani and Sng opine that the first and most important was a sense of community among the 10 member-nations.
"The sense of identity that the people of ASEAN have developed is not the same as the sense of identity that the people of Europe have clearly developed," the book contends.
This apart, the mutual trust and confidence among the ASEAN leaders, "although often invisible to the international community, is one of ASEAN's greatest strengths", it says.
Regarding ASEAN's weaknesses, Mahbubani and Sng are of the view that there is no natural custodian of the bloc, unlike the EU which remains strong and resilient because France and Germany have accepted the common responsibility of keeping the organisation going.
According to the book, Indonesia, accounting for 40 per cent of the region's population, could be a logical choice.
However, if Jakarta was not forthcoming, the authors name Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand as the three other natural candidates.
(Aroonim Bhuyan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)