As we look towards the East, the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) is the natural partner for our engagement with the extended neighbourhood in South East Asia and Asia-Pacific. India-ASEAN strategic partnership constitutes the core of ‘Act East Policy’, enunciated by the Honourable Prime Minister in Nay Pyi Taw in November 2014.
India’s relations with ASEAN countries are rooted in shared heritage and civilizational linkages. Hinduism has profound impact in the region with presence of Hindu temples of My Son in Vietnam and Angkor Vat in Cambodia; influence of Hindu architecture in temples in Laos, Myanmar and Indonesia; engravings of Mahabharata and Ramayana in monuments; popularity of Ramayana; Pali and Sanskrit roots in Thai text etc.
India’s soft power manifested in Buddhism, Yoga, revival of Nalanda University, Indian Chairs in Universities (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia), Indian Cultural Centres (Jakarta, Bali, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Suva, Lautoka), joint restoration of monuments (Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos) etc seeks to culturally bridge the Asia-Pacific region.
The Year 2017 marks 50 years of ASEAN and 25 years of India-ASEAN relationship. Shri Amitabh Kant CEO, NITI Aayog addressed the ASEAN-India Expo and Forum, which was inaugurated by H E Prayut Chan-o-cha, Prime Minister of Thailand on August 2, 2017 at the prestigious Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre in Bangkok. Several high profile events are planned during the year to commemorate the anniversary. Invitation to the Heads of States and Governments of the 10 ASEAN countries for Republic Day 2018 is reflective of the new found salience of ASEAN in our policy paradigm.
Aided by the historical connect, relations have been advanced to develop contemporary relevance. Originally conceived as an economic initiative in 1991, our eastward engagement has evolved in terms of geographical expanse and sectoral reach across the three pillars of politico-security, economic and socio-cultural cooperation. India-ASEAN relationship has matured to Strategic Partnership with thirty annual institutional mechanisms and seven ministerial dialogues. India’s ASEAN mission would further expand the outreach.
Besides geographical closeness, historical connect, cultural affinities and commercial interests, our eastward engagement has been driven by geo-strategic concerns. Defence and security cooperation, especially counter-terrorism has grown with Thailand, Malaysia, Australia and Indonesia. There are agreements on Mutual Legal assistance in criminal matters (Singapore, Malaysia), Transfer of Sentenced Persons (Cambodia), Extradition treaties (Malaysia), White Shipping Information (Singapore) and Security Cooperation (Australia).
The unity and centrality of ASEAN remains significant for itself and for the Asia Pacific region. The uniqueness of ASEAN countries to transcend their differences and come together in the pursuit of shared vision and shared prosperity is significant as global power and economy dynamics shift to the region. Our participation in East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Defence Ministers meeting plus and expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum supports the open, balanced and inclusive regional security architecture. Engagement in Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, Asia Cooperation Dialogue and Mekong Ganga Cooperation improves intra-regional cooperation.
Synergies between bilateral and multilateral initiatives add value to the partnership. Strategic partnership has been forged with Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, ROK, Australia, Singapore and ASEAN. Nine out of ten ASEAN countries were visited by our President, Prime Minister or Vice President since May 2014. Honourable Prime Minister attended three ASEAN-India and East Asia Summits from 2014-16. Forum for India Pacific Islands Cooperation summits highlight the importance of our relations with Pacific Islands.
The idea of linking India with South East Asia and beyond has brought together population of 1.85 billion and GDP of over US$ 3.8 trillion. ASEAN is India’s 4th largest and India is ASEAN’s 7th largest trading partner. ASEAN-India Free Trade Area and ASEAN Economic Community have consolidated the mutually beneficial economic engagement. Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership would achieve greater economic integration by bringing East Asia into the ambit. Free Trade Agreement negotiations with Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and review of Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreements with Malaysia and Singapore have got renewed focus. Dialogues in skill development/education exist with Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Singapore & Malaysia.
There is need to add further form and substance on ground for deepening the process of integration, whether on people-to-people linkages, geographical connectivity, institutional and trade complementarity, tackling cross-border development challenges of climate change, water scarcity, food security, diseases etc, and fight against international terrorism.
Looking ahead, there is continued interest in strengthening maritime security, ensuring freedom of navigation, combating international terrorism, anti-piracy & non-traditional transnational threats and coordinating responses to natural disasters. With growing radicalisation, learning from Malaysia’s experience in de-radicalisation can be useful.
The influence of the 3 Cs - Commerce, Connectivity and Culture remains vital to impart a future looking perspective. Greater flow of goods, services, skilled workers and investments will impart an upward trajectory to the relationship. Building regional value chains, investing in manufacturing hubs and expanding cooperation in cutting-edge technologies will keep us ahead of the curve. Initiatives similar to Project Development Fund, which is building Indian economic projects in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam would sustain economic gains. Make in India, infrastructure, urban renewal, smart cities, innovation, skills, cooperation in science & technology and space present opportunities for forging partnerships. Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei provide mineral resources for energy security. Thus, promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy should get priority.
Enhancing connectivity in all its dimensions- physical, institutional, digital and cultural- is at the heart of deepening the partnership. North East can be a land bridge for building complementarities through trade, tourism, skill development and people-to-people contacts. US$ 1 billion line of credit operationalized by India for connectivity projects in ASEAN is vital. There is need to boost air, road, maritime connectivity & inland waterways and fast track on-going projects such as Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit project and India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway. Setting up SEZs to attract private sector to invest in connectivity corridors such as Mekong-India Economic Corridor is worth consideration. Institutional and digital connectivity can be energised through exchange visits, scholarships, capacity building in IT, technologies & entrepreneurship, skill development by replicating Singapore’s model of ‘World Class Skill Centre’, virtual networks, information highways etc.
In any relationship, people hold the key for building bonds and bringing nations closer. Tourism presents a great window of opportunity for building cultural connectivity. Similar to Ramayana trail, Buddhist Tourist Circuit connecting Bodh Gaya, Vaishali, Rajgir and Kushinagar in Bihar, Sarnath and Shravasti in UP, along with Kapilavastu and Lumbini in Nepal is inspired by the desire for greater connectivity. Win-win partnerships between ‘Amazing Thailand’, ‘Truly Asia’, and ‘Incredible India’ can be synergised by encouraging tie ups/meetings of travel and tour operators. States can become key stakeholders in expanding India’s outreach in diverse areas to ASEAN and the region beyond.
In conclusion, our partnership with ASEAN is not only a platform for building ties with our neighborhood or an instrument for greater economic integration, but also as a counterbalance to emerging power rivalries and an anchor for peace, stability and prosperity in Asia and surrounding Indian Ocean and Pacific region.