India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) pictured here during the 14th East Asia Summit in Bangkok on November 4, 2019. A recent survey showed that India’s role as an economic and political partner in Southeast Asia is almost completely overshadowed. (Photo: Manan Vatsyayana, AFP)

The State of Southeast Asia Survey

For India, Miles to Go to Reengage Southeast Asia

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The latest State of Southeast Asia Survey presents a sobering picture for India. New Delhi has its work cut out for it if it wants to engage the region more.

The years between roughly 1962 and 1992 reflected three lost decades for India’s engagement with Southeast Asia. The years prior had seen India play a role in supporting decolonisation efforts in Indonesia, Indochina, and Burma. The years that followed saw a gradual reengagement with Southeast Asian economies and regional institutions. But while recent decades have witnessed concerted attempts at widening and deepening Indian interactions with the region – from trade and tourism, to military cooperation and investment – the latest survey data also shows how very far India has to go to regain Southeast Asians’ confidence.

From an Indian standpoint, the State of Southeast Asia: 2021 survey conducted by the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute presents a sobering picture. More Southeast Asian respondents expressed more confidence than no confidence in the international roles played by Japan (a net +50.6 per cent), the European Union (+21.4 per cent), and the United States (+17 per cent). On the other hand, negative perceptions dogged India – 19.8 per cent of respondents expressed confidence in India’s global role against 50.3 per cent who expressed the contrary, giving New Delhi a negative 30.5 per cent score. This was only surpassed by those of China, which scored a net negative 46.5 per cent. The two major reasons cited for the lack of confidence in India were that it was too preoccupied domestically or in South Asia (39.7 per cent) and that New Delhi lacked the capacity and will for global leadership (39.7 per cent). The silver lining is that very few of those with negative views attributed it to India posing a threat to their country’s interests (1.7 per cent) or having an incompatible political culture or worldview (2.5 per cent).

The more revealing picture of Southeast Asian perspectives on India concerned specific issues. While the region views China as its major economic partner, the United States’ military as a prominent security provider, Japan as a significant investor, and the European Union as a normative power, India’s role is almost completely overshadowed. Only 0.1 per cent of respondents saw India playing the most important economic role in the region. Only 0.8 per cent of respondents saw India as the primary champion of free trade. Only 0.6 per cent saw India as the country doing most to support the rules-based order. Only 0.3 per cent said India was their preferred country to study, and only 1 per cent said India would be their preferred country to visit, the lowest among ASEAN partner countries.

…while recent decades have witnessed concerted attempts at widening and deepening Indian interactions with the region – from trade and tourism, to military cooperation and investment – the latest survey data also shows how very far India has to go to regain Southeast Asians’ confidence.

Things look only slightly less bleak when it came to coronavirus assistance and strategic alternatives. Only 1.6 per cent of respondents believed that India had provided the most assistance for Covid-19, although the one Southeast Asian country that was a major recipient of Indian-made vaccines – Myanmar – reflected a more positive view, with 7 per cent of respondents there recognising India’s role. Beyond the United States and China, India featured as only the fourth alternative partner of choice in the survey at 6.6 per cent, behind the European Union, Japan, and Australia. When asked as to who they would turn to if the US is perceived to be unreliable, only 7.8 per cent of respondents saw India as the preferred alternative. This put India in 5th position after Japan, the EU, China and Australia (but ahead of South Korea and the United Kingdom).

Fortunately, the trend over the year before is positive: 20 per cent of respondents expressed confidence in India this year compared to 16 per cent the year prior. The negative views have also declined slightly from about 53.5 per cent to 50.3 per cent. But these minor shifts are almost meaningless unless a positive trend can be sustained over several years. By far the biggest factor among those respondents who were positively inclined was India’s image as a responsible stakeholder that respects international law (37.3 per cent). Smaller numbers expressed admiration for India’s worldview (18.1 per cent), economic leadership (17.6 per cent), and culture (17.2 per cent).

The overall survey results suggest points of opportunity or convergence between India and Southeast Asia in the future. The broad Southeast Asian consensus about the South China Sea, particularly the need to uphold UNCLOS and respect the 2016 tribunal ruling, represents an alignment with Indian positions. The rising importance of Mekong River issues was also reflected in the survey, with India harboring similar concerns as a lower riparian state about the exploitation of rivers originating in the Tibetan plateau. The survey reflected general receptivity in Southeast Asia to developing the Indo-Pacific as a strategic concept, a view that will undoubtedly be welcomed in New Delhi.

There also appears to be growing alignment between Indian and Southeast Asian views of China. Overwhelmingly, survey respondents identified China (76.3 per cent) as the most economically influential actor in Southeast Asia, although a majority (72.3 per cent) worried about that influence. A plurality (49.1 per cent) perceived China as the most influential political and strategic power, although an even higher proportion (88.6 per cent) worried rather than welcomed this development. Concerns about China extended to territorial disputes, respect for sovereignty, and unfair or coercive trade and economic practices. A growing number of respondents (61.5 per cent over 53.6 per cent last year) believed that if forced to align, that ASEAN should align itself with the United States rather than China.

Despite the apparent commonalities in worldviews between Southeast Asia and India, much more work is clearly in order. This extends to economic connectivity, people-to-people exchanges, and security partnerships. India is unlikely to play a dominant role in Southeast Asia in the near future, comparable to China or the United States today. But featuring more prominently and positively in public opinion surveys in Southeast Asia ought to be a desirable and achievable outcome.

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