Hosting all heads of the Southeast Asian Nations to commemorate 25th year of India-ASEAN partnership on the Republic Day is a historic event. The journey that started as a ‘Look East Policy’ in 1992 has certainly made strides in many fields. Now with the ‘Act East’ it is time to provide substance to the relationship with civilisational values as the basis
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing the 14th India-ASEAN summit in Laos rightly remarked that, “Our engagement with ASEAN is not just about a solid base of shared civilizational heritage. It is also driven by our common strategic priorities of securing our societies and bringing peace, stability and prosperity to the region. ASEAN is central to India”s “Act East” Policy”. The commemoration of 25 years’ celebration of this unique relationship between a regional group and a sovereign State provides an opportunity to assess the journey of a quarter century and charter the course for future years.
The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) that was created in 1967 amidst the hostile environment of the Cold-War emerged as the most successful regional cooperation arrangement in the developing world. Then, a common external threat perception from China and multidimensional functional approach were the driving forces behind the emergence of ASEAN as the most viable organisation in the Asia-Pacific region.
Though, the anti-Colonialism movements had provided natural platform for this entire region to come together, the divergence in ideological outlook and security relationships imposed by the Cold War inhibited the ASEAN and India relations for four decades since India’s Independence. Though India supported all the moves adopted by ASEAN for ensuring peace and stability in the region, actual interaction was limited. The end of the Cold War paved the way for clearing misperceptions by both sides. The “Look East” policy initiated by India and realisation by the ASEAN countries provided a new impetus to bilateral relations.
A New Beginning
At the Fourth ASEAN Summit, in 1992, the ASEAN heads agreed to grant India the status of a Sectoral Dialogue Partner, which provided a new beginning to India-ASEAN relations. The formalisation of this partnership symbolised the recognition to their political and economic potential, enabling both the sides to seek new areas of cooperation. Accordingly, the ASEAN – India Joint Sectoral Cooperation Committee (AIJSCC) was set up in March 1993. It identified four areas for cooperation, viz. trade, investment, tourism and science and technology.
The second defining moment in this relationship came three years later. At the Fifth Summit in Bangkok, the ASEAN leaders decided to award India the status of a full Dialogue Partner. This allowed India to participate in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)- and the Post Ministerial Conference between ASEAN foreign ministers and dialogue partners. India’s participation helped to enhance the profile of ARF and the common security concerns discussed contributed positively to India-ASEAN ties. The positions adopted by India and ASEAN on various regional and international issues, especially terrorism, economic globalisation and technological cooperation helped a long way.
The Ninth Meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was held at Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam on July 31 2002, where the ASEAN countries made a historic decision to enter into a Summit level dialogue with India which marked an important milestone in India-ASEAN relations. India shares common concerns with South East Asia. In 2012, India gained the strategic partnership status with the regional grouping.
In these 25 years of sustained interaction, India and ASEAN have established a functional mechanism to coordinate and facilitate the working at the professional and technical levels. The working group set up to focus on development, cooperation, science and technology, trade and investment and the business council has become operational. Another area of cooperation between India and ASEAN is the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) framework, which comprises five members of ASEAN, namely Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. After getting into Summit-level dialogue since 2002, the areas of human resource development, transport, infrastructure and exchange of information for stopping the financing of terrorist networks also gained significance in this relationship. To facilitate the process, India has set up a separate Mission to ASEAN and the EAS in Jakarta in April 2015 with a dedicated Ambassador. Meanwhile, at the bilateral level also, India has successfully engaged with all the ASEAN members and explored new opportunities in the areas of oil exploration and space technology. Vietnam is a glaring example of this.
Despite all these efforts, both on connectivity and commerce fronts, the progress is not up to the potential. The trilateral highway project is still lingering on for almost 18 years. Many port development projects have been pending. Though the trade has increased 25 times in 25 years, in 2016-2017, ASEAN-India trade stood at $71 billion, which was just 10.85 percent of India’s external trade. Although the number of tourists from India to ASEAN countries has increased, they account for only 3 per cent of tourist arrivals to the ASEAN region. The number of tourists from ASEAN countries to India is even abysmal.
Trade negotiations are at a delicate stage over the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). New Delhi has certain reservations with regards to RCEP while ASEAN nations would like India to sign on. Mutual cooperation to promote people to people contact through academic exchanges and cultural programmes is needed. However, India-ASEAN relations in the last decade or so have witnessed a realisation on both sides that mutual interaction is beneficial for the peace and prosperity of the region.
India’s civilisational links with the South East Asian region can be traced back to thousand years. It has influenced the region more than any other country, had the oldest maritime trade relations with it. Therefore, maritime linkages and civilisational ethos hold the key to provide the substance provide substance not just to the ‘Act East’ but even to the emerging narrative of ‘Indo-Pacific’.