For Republic Day 2018, India is hosting all the 10 heads of state/ government from ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) as chief guests, which is unprecedented. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of India’s relationship with the ASEAN grouping.
At a time when India is making its presence felt more and more on the global map, this symbolic gesture has a strong geopolitical and geo-economic significance. It is also a reaffirmation of the “Act East” policy the present government has been pursuing. Against this backdrop, it is time to take stock of the progress India has made vis-à-vis ASEAN and make an assessment of the future.
Evolving With ASEAN
Although ASEAN was set up back in 1967, India began its formal engagement only in 1992 as a sectoral partner. Despite the fact that Southeast Asian countries have ancient civilizational ties with India, geopolitical realities of the time perhaps did not permit a fuller engagement with them.
The first strategic focus from the Indian side came with its “Look East” policy of 1991. But it would not be wrong to say that even after that beginning, engagement with Southeast Asia did not pick up much visible momentum. Nevertheless, there were some stages of progress such as India becoming a Dialogue Partner in 1996 and then a Summit Level Partner in 2002. All of this evolved into a Strategic Partnership in 2012.
When New Delhi witnessed a change of government in May 2014, the whole foreign policy atmosphere seemed to be charged up with a new enthusiasm. It is the present administration which has sped up and expanded engagement with these countries by changing the narrative from “Look East” to “Act East”. In November 2014, at the 12th ASEAN-India Summit and the 9th East Asia Summit held in Myanmar, India’s Prime Minister formally enunciated the Act East Policy.
It is evident that even before this formal announcement, the present dispensation had its blueprint for foreign policy ready. It may be interesting to recall that the first foreign country Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited after assuming office in May 2014 was not a Western nation but India’s tiny neighbour Bhutan. The cultural significance of India having strong ties with this Buddhist kingdom holds in the context of many East and Southeast Asian nations too. Thus, Act East is not just a slogan for India. ASEAN, along with fora like BIMSTEC, is a significant part of India’s foreign policy focus.
A Carefully Crafted Relationship
Diplomacy with India’s eastern neighbourhood, and specifically with Southeast Asia, has been carefully crafted over the last three-and-a-half years. The story is still unfolding.
It is not the case that just because there is an occasion to commemorate India’s 25 years of engagement with ASEAN that the Indian republic saw it fit to celebrate the same by inviting the ASEAN leaders. Rather, there are instances galore in the last three years of how the Indian government has crafted an endearing story of cooperation and mutual growth with ASEAN. Some of these are listed below.
- Today, there are 30annual dialogue mechanisms between India and the ASEAN member states, including a Summit and six other Ministerial level meetings in key sectors, besides agriculture. Cooperation in agriculture and forestry remains an important part of this collaborative agenda between ASEAN and India.
- Inviting 10 heads of ASEAN for the Republic Day celebrations is not for a single-day event. In fact, a series of programmes with ASEAN took place throughout 2017 through India’s missions in ASEAN countries. Before the Commemorative Summit on the theme “Shared Values, Common Destiny” on January 25, 2018, there were the Youth Summit, Connectivity Summit, Business & Investment Meet and Expo, to name a few.
- Apart from such events, some of the measures the Indian administration has taken in the last three years are noteworthy.
- For instance, in August 2017, the Indian cabinet approved the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between India and Myanmar for the conservation of earthquake-damaged pagodas at Bagan, Myanmar. This reflects the strengthening of India’s enduring cultural and civilizational ties with Myanmar.
- On January 3, this year, the cabinet approved the agreement between India and Myanmar on Land Border Crossing to facilitate the movement of people on the basis of valid passports and visas which will enhance economic and social interaction between the two countries. The Land Ports Authority of India has taken up the expansion of the Integrated Check Post (ICP) at Moreh in Manipur for the expansion of trade with Myanmar.
- To strengthen India’s relationship with ASEAN, a Plan of Action (POA) is adopted from time to time. The 3rd POA (2016-20) was adopted at the ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers Meeting held in August 2015.
- Furthermore, ASEAN and India had identified priority areas for the period of 2016-18 and have been implementing measures under it, which would in turn contribute towards the successful implementation of the 2016-20 Plan of Action.
Culture, Connectivity, Commerce
Socio-Cultural Cooperation: There are many programmes to boost people-to-people interaction with ASEAN states, such as inviting ASEAN students to India each year for the Students Exchange Programme, Special Training Course for ASEAN diplomats, Exchange of Parliamentarians, Participation of ASEAN students in the National Children’s Science Congress, ASEAN-India Network of Think-Tanks, ASEAN-India Eminent Persons Lecture Series, etc.
Connectivity: India has made considerable progress in implementing the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multimodal Project. Issues related to increasing the maritime and air connectivity between ASEAN and India and transforming the corridors of connectivity into economic corridors are under discussion. A possible extension to the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway to Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam is also under consideration. A consensus on finalising the proposed protocol of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Motor Vehicle Agreement (IMT MVA) has been reached. This agreement will play a critical role in realising the seamless movement of passenger, personal and cargo vehicles along roads linking India, Myanmar and Thailand. PM Modi announced a Line of Credit of US $1 billion to promote projects that support physical and digital connectivity between India and ASEAN and a Project Development Fund with a corpus of Rs 500 crore to develop manufacturing hubs in CLMV countries at the 13th ASEAN India Summit held in Malaysia in November 2015.
Commerce: There is no denying that India’s trade with ASEAN has a lot of potential to be explored. But there is enough evidence of growth as of now. India’s trade with ASEAN has increased to US $70 billion in 2016-17 from US $65 billion in 2015-16. India’s exports to ASEAN has increased to US $31.07 billion in 2016-17 from US $25 billion in 2015-16. India’s imports from ASEAN increased by 1.8% in 2016-17 vis-à-vis 2015-16 and stood at US $40.63 billion. Investment flows are also substantial both ways, with ASEAN accounting for approximately 12.5% of investment flows into India since 2000. FDI inflows into India from ASEAN between April 2000 and August 2017 was about US $514.73 billion, while FDI outflows from India to ASEAN countries, from April 2007 to March 2015, as per data maintained by the DEA, was about US$ 38.672 billion. The ASEAN-India Free Trade Area has been completed with the entering into force of the ASEAN-India Agreements on Trade in Service and Investments on July 1, 2015.
Geopolitical & Maritime Cooperation
A very important area of cooperation for India and ASEAN is not merely emerging security threats on land but also maritime security. This involves not merely protecting against encroachments or hegemonic designs of certain powers, apparent or real, but also ensuring the sea lines of communication remain open as an essential constituent of the global commons. India, for many years, had appeared lukewarm to ASEAN’s outreach in this regard, asking Delhi to play a bigger role in providing maritime security.
Under the present administration, this appears to be changing fast, with India carving out a role of itself as a net security provider to ASEAN, without, of course, coming into conflict with others. India’s defence cooperation with states like Vietnam or Singapore may a case in point. But there is also India’s larger naval engagement with countries like the US, Japan and Australia which, too, must be factored into any talk of maritime security and freedom of navigation in Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific.
As a whole, goring conventional and non-conventional challenges and threats necessitate political and security cooperation between India and ASEAN. Thus, geopolitical and security cooperation has evolved into a key pillar of the relationship. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is the main forum for ASEAN’s security dialogue. India has been attending the annual meetings of the ARF since 1996 and actively participates in its activities. There is also the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM), which is the highest defence consultative and cooperative mechanism for the ASEAN.
Despite all the progress achieved so far, there is a shade of opinion which holds that India is still lagging far behind in harnessing the benefits of partnership with ASEAN countries. Such a point of view has been expressed by an article in Hindustan times (India-Asean ties: A cup half full?) written by former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran on January 24, 2018. Also, as this The Hindu report says, there is pressure from ASEAN members on India to speed up the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement which facilitates free trade.
Both issues should be looked at through the prism of connectivity which this government seems committed to providing through digital and road networks. The trade volume with ASEAN will increase once the infrastructure is put in place. The RCEP cannot be implemented without the above-mentioned infrastructure in place, as the present situation appears to be advantageous only to China for flooding India with its goods. The pro-active policy initiatives of the current administration has now started bearing fruits.
ASEAN constitutes about 3% of the Earth’s area. But the maritime domain ASEAN finds itself in is of tremendous geostrategic significance when we weigh in recent developments in the South China sea. India, therefore, no longer thinks strategically only from the land or continental point of view. Moreover, the Northeast of India, neglected for decades but finally being developed and brought into the Indian mainstream will gain major economic and security benefits from the progress made in India-ASEAN ties.
In conclusion, it may be said that inviting the 10 heads of ASEAN to India’s Republic Day celebrations is not a single event. There is a blueprint for the future which we should be able to see in it.
Also read our previous article: How India is Acting East: An Assessment in Light of October’s BIMSTEC Exercise.