Bharat and ASEAN : ‘Act East’ in Action
Modi’s visit to Malaysia calls for greater action in areas of economics, trade and culture to enhance cooperation with ASEAN and realise the objectives of ‘Act East’ policy.
The influence of Bharat on East and Southeast Asia, including some of the regions of Asia-Pacific, has been extensive. Both Hinduism and Buddhism spread throughout Asia and East Asia from Bharat along the ancient trading routes. While Hinduism found its way across much of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, Buddhism reached Japan and Vietnam through China and Korea. It also flourished in countries closer to Bharateeya periphery such as Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand which largely form the regional grouping popularly known as ASEAN. (Association of South East Asian States)
Agreements signed between Bharat and Singapore
Despite these links Bharat has hardly shown any imperialist designs in South East Asia. As late Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, noted, ‘Historically India has had an enormous influence on South-east Asia; economically and culturally too. The Ramayana story is present all over South-east Asia in different versions. The civilisations in the region were really Indian in origin…’ (Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India, Penguin, 2009)
However, the relationship has remained largely dormant in cold war years. It was only after economic liberalisation of Bharat in 1961 that Bharateeyaleaders started invoking their ‘cultural affinities with East Asia’ in their efforts to be partner in growth. Under the broad objectives of ‘Look East’ Policy (1992) the effort was directed to institutionalise linkages with ASEAN, with its member states, and to prevent Southeast Asia falling under the influence of any one major power. Bharat started a partial dialogue with ASEAN grouping in 1992 and became a full dialogue partner in the year 1995. The first Bharat- ASEAN summit was held in 2002, in Cambodia and since then 12 summits have taken place between Bharat and ASEAN.
Since the turn of the century, the Look East Policy has been reinvigorated, featuring greater consistency and focus of effort under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Under the present regime ‘Act East’ policy broadly encompasses four key elements including development of economic relations and trade, enhance political understanding, Geo-strategic cooperation and upholding soft-power ties. The recent visit of Modi has primarily touched the necessary areas of bilateral concerns and interests.
On the issue of economic cooperation Modi emphasised that prosperity of both the regions will “reinforce prosperity for our 1.9 billion people”. Bharat and ASEAN have witnessed accelerated trade and investment since 2000. Exports rose from US$2.9 billion to US$19.1 billion in 2009. “ASEAN remains the largest investment partner, both for inward and outward flows,” he said. Calling for the need to enhance “cooperation in untapped areas” the visit has called for progress in negotiations for a balanced and ambitious Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEPA) that would cover goods and services as well as investments. He said that Bharat has emerged as the fastest growing economy while ASEAN’s economy continues to forge ahead with dynamism and energy. In the background of recent Paris attacks the visit also witness strong words from Prime Minister Modi and other world leaders on the issue of Islamic terrorism. He called for “new global resolve and new strategies to combat terrorism” and noted the importance of East Asia Summit to address global challenges and uncertainties.
Noting the importance of greater political understanding between both the regions, “We meet at a time of multiple global challenges: economic uncertainties, political turmoil and security threats”, he said addressing the 13th India- ASEAN summit. The visit also marked the admission of concerns of ASEAN states over Chinese overtures in South China Sea. In an attempt to reflect convergence of Geo-strategic concerns between Bharat and ASEAN, he shared their concerns over freedom of navigation and sea commerce. He strongly advocated for adherence to the accepted principles of international law on sea. The visit also witness necessary bilateral announcements to improve soft power ties and enhance cultural relations between Bharat and ASEAN. The Prime Minister announced a credit of 1 million US $ for to promote projects that would support physical and digital connectivity between Bharat and ASEAN. The Prime Minister also offered the ASEAN nations with use of GAGAN (GPS Aided Geo Augmented Navigation) for their purpose.
He also proposed the increase in “ASEAN- India Science and Technology Development Fund” from the current $1 million to $5 million. On enhancing cultural links, Modi said that Bharat proposed to open an ‘ASEAN Studies Centre’ in the Northeastern Hill University in Shillong. Towards this Malaysia offered to take necessary actions to recognise more degree programmes from Bharat especially in Information Technology (IT) and engineering.
In sum considering the level of agreements signed and prevailing optimism the visit was significant for Bharat in its attempt to upswing relation with ASEAN governments on the relevant bilateral as well as multilateral issues.
Abhishek Pratap Singh (The writer is Doctoral Candidate, Centre for East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)