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China’s Neighbors Circle The Wagons

When we think of delicate diplomatic negotiations, we might picture black tie galas or fancy state dinners. But last week, in a turn of events that would make diehard Nascar fans happy, India and the ten Asean nations cemented a deeper strategic relationship at a motor race. The Financial Times reports that Indian dignitaries met last week with representatives of the Association of Southeast Asean Nations at the Asean-India Car Rally in New Delhi.

The New Delhi meeting was just the latest of sign of Asean-India closeness, following on a decade in which trade between the two has grown tenfold and everything from a closer maritime alliance to a Trilateral Highway joining India to Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia has been put on the table.

India and the Asean area have deep historical links, and under British rule modern Malaysia, Singapore and Burma were part of the same empire as modern India, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Before that, first Hindu and then Muslim traders established deep cultural and economic ties throughout the region.

With the end of European rule, the region splintered. India became inward looking as Burma expelled Indian traders. Wars consumed Indochina and the Cold War alliance systems divided the region. But increasingly, the old historical patterns are making themselves felt, and India-Asean trade is rapidly growing from a low base, with both sides hoping to expand relations further.

India and Asean have been thrown together by their shared mistrust of China, and that country’s territorial ambitions. India has agreements with Vietnam to explore for oil in disputed reaches of the South China Sea, and both Japan and the United States see India’s deepening engagement with southeast Asia as an important element in the construction of an Asian architecture that reduces the threat of Chinese domination.

China is a formidable power, and India, still smarting from its defeat at China’s hands in their 1962 border war, will be hesitant to take any open steps against the country. But alarm over heavy-handed Chinese policies continues to grow in the region, and between the natural advantages to more trade, the historic and cultural ties in the region, and a common concern about Chinese power, we expect more summits of this kind and more concrete plans for strategic and economic cooperation.

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