Towards bolstering India-Asean ties

Asean as a region is important for India for two reasons. One is economic and the other is strategic.

The year 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of India-Asean partnership, a milestone in India’s Look East — now Act East — policy. On this partnership anniversary, both India and the 10-member grouping have resolved to further strengthen cooperation in both economic and strategic areas.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the opportunity to se­nd a congratulatory message to Philippines President and 2017 Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations) Chair Rodrigo Duterte committing India’s Act East policy that reflects the imp­ortance India attaches to its stra­tegic partnership with the bloc.

India’s commitment to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a reflection to its commitment to strengthen cooperation and economic integration in the region. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj sent a similar congratulatory message to Le Luong Minh, Secretary-General of the organisation to reinforce India’s commitment.

There are two reasons why Asean as a region is important for India. One is economic and the other is strategic. On the economic front, Asean is the key to India’s Act East policy. India has been encouraging Asean to leverage and reap the full benefits of the Asean-India Free Trade Area in goods, services and investment, which has been in place since July 2015.

The larger RCEP is a propo­sed free trade agreement betwe­en the 10-member states of the Asean — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam — and the six states — China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia — with which Asean has existing free trade pacts.

In his message to Duterte, Modi stressed that RCEP could further strengthen cooperation and economic integration in the region if the states are “to achieve an inclusive, comprehensive, balanced and mutually beneficial agreement, with equal ambition in goods, services and investment”.

Connectivity is the core of India’s economic engagement strategy with the Asean. For this, India has committed a $1 billion line of credit with Asean as well as for undertaking initiatives for narrowing the development gap within Asean. This is much appreciated by the Asean and constantly working towards further invigorating trade and investment relations with India.

The Asean is equally important for India from the strategic perspective. The strategic dimension into India-Asean relationship dates back to January 28, 1992 when the fourth Asean Summit in Singapore took a decision to establish a Sectoral Dialogue Partnership with India. Since then, the relationship between India and the Asean has progressed from strength to strength when the two sides became full dialogue partners in 1996, Summit partners in 2002 and Strategic Partners in 2012.

Asean is India’s fourth largest trading partner, accounting for 10.2% of India’s total trade. India is Asean’s seventh largest trading partner. Investment flows are also robust both ways, with Singapore being the principal hub for both inward and outward investment.

The shared bonds of heritage and culture have helped build the foundation of strong people-to-people contacts nurtured through the millennia. It was therefore that Modi in his message to Duterte mentioned the appropriateness of choosing the theme of the 25 years’ celebrati­on as “Shared Values, Common Destiny” reflecting common efforts for future-oriented era of mutual cooperation, peace, progress and prosperity. Indeed, Asean’s centrality in regional affairs is paramount for the region’s peace, progress and stability, which India is committed to uphold.
Planned celebrations

The planned celebrations span the political, economic, cultural and people-to-people domains, besides a special commemorative summit and a foreign ministers’ meeting that India would host. This will be the occasion to explore other areas to expand their economic footprint, leading to robust trade.

There was a bit of concern in Southeast Asia when Duterte launched his war on drugs after coming to power and foulmouthed former US president Barack Obama who criticised his human rights violations and also for getting close to China. He travelled to Beijing in October last year and almost surrendered Philippines’ victory at the international tribunal in July 2016 over China’ claim on the South China Sea. But Modi’s outreach to Duterte could rever­se Philippines’ new approach.

Earlier, China had tried to exploit the rift between the US and the Philippines and tried to rea­ch out to the Philippines leader­ship despite the latter having dispute over maritime rights to the South China Sea. With the entry of Donald Trump as the US president and his tough stan­ce on China provides an opportunity for both Modi and Duter­te to leverage the ties with the US to their advantage, in particular keeping China in check.

After all, both Modi and Duterte have already reached out to Trump on phone and the former even getting an invitation to visit the US later this year. In particular, Modi’s stress on “rules-based regional architecture” is an endorsement to the concern that India, Asean and the US share on the means to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea through peaceful means and rejection of China’s preference of adopting unilateral means by use of coercion and threat of force.

(The writer is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. Views are personal)

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