The symbolism of ten Asean leaders gathering in Delhi for the Republic Day celebrations in the 50th year of formation of Asean and the 25th year of India’s partnership with the regional body is undeniable. That all the leaders of the 10-member bloc, which includes Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam, accepted the invitation for a collective meeting indicates the warmth of India’s ties with Asean.
The two day commemorative summit with the theme, ‘Shared values, common destiny’ marked the desire of both sides to give further momentum to their partnership, which despite all efforts has still to bloom to its full potential. Ties between India and Asean moved slowly but steadily towards closer cooperation in the first two decades. India became a sectoral partner of Asean in 1992, dialogue partner in 1996 and summit level partner in 2002, till ties were upgraded to strategic partnership in 2012. India and Asean held a similar commemorative summit in December 2012 to chart a new plan for their partnership. With 30 annual dialogue mechanisms in place between them, the Asean region is described as a top priority in India’s foreign policy.
India had traditionally strong historic and cultural relations with the South-east Asian region but ties went into a freeze during the cold war period as the Asean countries came under the American alliance. The end of the cold war and India’s move towards globalisation following the economic reforms of the 1990s allowed both sides to take a fresh look at their ties. Relations began progressing after the PV Narasimha Rao government launched the “Look East” policy to focus on the Southeast Asian region in the early 1990s. The Asean economies were booming while India was the lumbering elephant till the Indian economy rode out the buffeting of the Asian currency crisis that laid low the Asean tigers in the mid-1990s. One of the important aspects of the Act East policy is connecting India’s northeast region to the region in the east. Ties gained further momentum when Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the “Act East” policy which gave a special focus to relations with the Asean region.
India-Asean relations have grown but the political ties show far greater depth than their ties in trade, investment and people to people contacts. The poor connectivity between India and many of the Asean countries have hampered the increase in contacts between them. Connectivity is a key feature for closer region integration. Regional cooperation needs sustained effort but two major connectivity projects, the Kaladan multi-modal transport proposal and the trilateral highway through Mynamar to Thailand have been greatly delayed.
Indo-Asean trade, which was about $71 billion in 2016, amounts to just over 10 percent of India’s foreign trade. Trade had progressed well for some years but has been sluggish in recent times, indicating that the trade target set for $200 billion by 2022 is an unlikely target. The major component of India’s trade with the Asean region is with Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand while trade with other member countries is still to pick up. Asean is India’s fourth largest trading partner while India is Asean’s seventh largest trading partner. Negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) have missed their deadline of November 2017. The proposed economic partnership between Asean and its free trade partners, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, comprising 30 percent of the global economy would be a vehicle for closer economic integration. India has dropped some of its reservations but still needs to reconcile with RCEP proposals.
India hopes to deepen the bonds with Asean through greater connectivity, building air, land, maritime and digital linkages. It has laid emphasis on commercial ties and the common heritage of culture through textiles and the epic Ramayana, which exists with some variations through the South-east Asian region from Indonesia to Cambodia.
Asian political dynamics are changing with America going through an unpredictable and self-focused phase at a time when China has become more assertive in its rising power. Maritime security has gained importance as Asean lies in the centre of the Indo-Pacific region. Asean members have indicated that they would like India to have a larger presence in the region, including in the South China Sea as a balancing power to China. However, Asean members are wary of the flow over of any India-China contestation in the region. Some Asean members are uncertain about the Quadrilateral (Quad) of Japan, US, India and Australia, especially when it appears to be a means to contain China.
India and Asean need to enhance their cooperation to build a regional structure that provides for security and stability in the region. Asean leaders spoke of the importance of India-Asean ties for peace,
security and economic development of the Indo-Pacific region.