| NEW DELHI
NEW DELHI Dec 19 The dozens of vehicles that
roared into northeast India this week on a rally from Indonesia
symbolize deeper ties between the South Asian giant and
Southeast Asia, but the dreadful roads along several parts of
the 8,000 km (5,000 mile) journey also show how much remains to
The caravan crossed jungles and mountains in eight nations
before reaching the remote Indian state of Manipur, bordering
Myanmar, in an event promoting a high-level meeting between
India and leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian
Nations (ASEAN) in New Delhi on Thursday and Friday.
"The roads crumbled to begin with and then ceased to exist,"
said participants Bijoy Kumar and Vinod Nookla in a blog
published by Mahindra & Mahindra, the Indian company that
supplied the XUV 500 vehicles that participated.
"In place of tarmac there were boulders and the road started
becoming narrower by the kilometre."
The meeting in New Delhi will mainly be a ceremonial affair
to mark 20 years of cooperation, India's Foreign Minister Salman
Khurshid told Reuters. But it is held against the backdrop of
Chinese assertiveness in the potentially oil and gas-rich South
Some ASEAN countries contest claims by China in the waters,
making it the biggest potential flashpoint in the region. The
United States has called for calm, but some ASEAN nations are
also looking to India, the other regional heavyweight, to get
"They want India to play a larger role. Those concerns are
only increasing given the uncertain situation that is emerging,"
said C. Raja Mohan, a strategic affairs expert at the Observer
Research Foundation think-tank.
For India, improved relations with Southeast Asia will give
it entry into one of the fastest-growing economic regions in the
world and a source of raw materials needed for its own growth.
But the broken-down roads between India and the nations to
its southeast, a shortage of direct flights and constraints such
as India's tiny diplomatic corps - comparable in size to New
Zealand's - mean India trails China in relations with the
Trade between India and the 10-member ASEAN was up to $80
billion last year compared with $47 billion in 2008. An
agreement on free trade in services and investment could be
signed at the New Delhi meeting.
Direct flights from Delhi to Myanmar on Indian airline
SpiceJet are due to begin in the next few weeks.
But India's role in the region is dwarfed by that of China,
which enjoyed trade worth a record $363 billion with ASEAN
countries in 2011 in an already established free trade area.
"What we need is far greater connectivity," Khurshid said in
an interview, mentioning roads, railways and flights as areas
"There is still a lot that can done, and we hope that over
the next few months and years we will see considerable
improvement," said Khurshid, who also described a 10-year plan
to double the number of diplomats to reflect India's growing
The first meeting of ASEAN leaders in India is a watershed
in India's efforts to build ties with Southeast Asia.
The prime ministers of Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia and
Vietnam, the presidents of Myanmar and Indonesian, and the vice
president of the Philippines are scheduled to attend. The other
nations in the group are Thailand, Laos, and Brunei.
India walks a delicate line to balance its increasingly
close partnership with Washington as President Barack Obama
steps up the U.S. presence in Asian, and the reality of living
next door to China, Asia's fastest-growing superpower.
Khurshid played down the possibility of any tension with
China and reiterated that India had no territorial claims in the
South China Sea.
"I don't think this is something that will reach hostility
or conflict, there are differences obviously - China has a very
clear perception about its sovereignty and it also has a very
clear idea of how it wants to resolve these issues.
"It's not something that cannot be resolved, it is certainly
not something in which we are directly involved, we've said
categorically that there should be compliance and respect for
the law of the sea."
But India's "Look East" policy and a need to lock down
energy supplies for its rapidly growing industrial sector are
pushing it to gradually step up military activities in the
region with more joint exercises and visits.
This month, India's navy chief said his force was ready to
deploy naval vessels to the South China Sea to protect its
oil-exploration interests there if needed.
India is exploring an oil and gas block with Vietnam in the
disputed waters and in future is likely to bring more liquefied
natural gas through the Malacca Straits. Khurshid said that
along with counter-terrorism, energy security was among India's
top foreign policy priorities.
"We have become far more resource orientated because
development is of course heavily dependent on resources. We
import 80 percent of our fuel," Khurshid said.
Ian Storey, senior fellow of the Institute of Southeast
Asian Studies in Singapore, said India had yet to impress many
ASEAN partners, despite strong ties to Vietnam,
"India is not a serious player in Southeast Asia, it has
aspirations to be a player, but it has a long way to go," he
"A common view is that India talks the talk but doesn't walk