The recent Philippine-Vietnam announcement on a coordinated response to China’s latest ocean drilling marks a significant shift in regional relations. Strains have been growing for some time. An unenforceable territorial dispute process has failed to resolve competing claims and anti-foreign sentiment is on the rise (in both Vietnam with riots against foreign factories and changing attitudes in China against buying foreign-made goods.) Any natural gas discovery will only exacerbate tensions.
This unprecedented level of public cooperation highlights a growing regional consensus. Years of China’s “peaceful rise” have ended and Southeast Asian countries appear to be gaining less and less from their trade-and-appease policies of the past.
Enter India, long the economic giant in waiting. While still a good two decades behind China in terms of overall development, the recently elected Modi government has pledged business reforms that could transform the country into a regional power. Re-kindling GDP growth rates of 7-10% could be a boon to resource rich southeast Asia eager to offset a slower-growth China.
With a near super majority Modi’s control over parliament can push change in ways that previous administrations could not. If he delivers, then significant trading and investment opportunities will follow. Average trade growth between Asean and India has already accelerated faster than Asean-China trade (25.5% vs. 15.1% from 2007 to 2011, the latest year available via Asean).
Still there are pitfalls along the way. Modi will need to steer the BJP party clear of its ultra-nationalist tendencies and historical anti-Muslim and anti-minority sentiment. His unresolved response to the slaughter of Muslim Indian citizens in 2002 while he was State Minister of Gujarat will surely be on the minds of Indonesia’s leaders. Competition may also hinder some opportunities where firms go head-to-head with each other (e.g. Thailand’s auto industry vs. southern India’s).
If India’s leaders can finally overcome decades of inertia and liberalize the economy they will find a region eager for a trade partner that doesn’t threaten their territorial integrity.