India-ASEAN at 25: ties stepped up

India-ASEAN at 25: ties stepped up

In late January, India showcased to the world its military might, rich heritage of cultural diversity and deep-rooted democratic values, celebrating its 69th Republic Day at Rajpath, New Delhi. The occasion had assumed added significance because it was for the time that the heads of the states of 10 ASEAN member countries were all chief guests at the Republic Day. During their two-day visit from January 25, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders participated in the Indo-ASEAN Commemorative Summit to celebrate 25 years of the engagement and also held a wide range of discussions with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on issues of common interests, including security, trade and commerce, terrorism, people-to-people contacts and others.

Interestingly, the genesis of today's India-ASEAN relations was laid in 1992 when Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao adopted the 'Look East' policy to reach out to this region. Consequently, India became a Sectoral Dialogue Partner of ASEAN in 1992, a full Dialogue Partner in 1996 and Summit Level Partner in 2002. The relationship between India and ASEAN was transformed into a strategic partnership in 2012 and at present, India is a part of ASEAN-led East Asia Summit, ASEAN Defence Ministerial Meeting Plus and ASEAN Regional Forum, with the two sides being currently also engaged through 30 dialogue mechanisms covering various fields of their common interests.

While successive Union governments continued to foster close engagement with the ASEAN region, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown his desire to elevate the relationship with ASEAN countries to new heights, beginning with the transformation of India's 'Look East' into 'Act East' policy. Modi inviting leaders of all 10 ASEAN countries was only the latest move in this direction. Their presence together in New Delhi cannot be seen merely as an exercise in commemorating the completion of 25 years of India-ASEAN relations.

The occasion also underscored the seriousness with which ASEAN views India in the region. This assessment, in fact, becomes clearer from the Delhi Declaration released at the end of the ASEAN leaders' visit as it emphasised the need for greater cooperation between the two sides in a number of areas including political, security, economic, trade and commerce, socio-cultural and others.

Of course, economic cooperation is a fulcrum of India-ASEAN relations, with trade between the two sides having risen from $2.9 billion in 1993 to $76.3 billion in 2016. ASEAN being India's fourth largest trading partner, India's trade with ASEAN has increased to $70 billion in 2016-17 from $65 billion in 2015-16. India's exports to ASEAN has increased to $31.07 billion in 2016-17 from $25 billion in 2015-16.

The two sides hope to increase the trade volume to $200 billion by 2022 and agreed to intensify efforts in 2018 toward the swift conclusion of a modern, comprehensive, high quality, and mutually beneficial Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The deeper economic engagement with ASEAN will help India sustain and increase its economic growth and thereby carry out developmental works and create new jobs. Improved ties will also play a crucial role in the development of the north-eastern states of India, since this region connects Southeast Asian countries to the rest of India.

At a time when China is asserting its claim over all parts of the South China Sea and has intensified its aggressive posturing against India, both sides have a very compelling security interest to foster engagement between them. It was in this context that both sides reaffirmed their com-
mitment to work closely together on common regional and international security issues of mutual concern and ensure an open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based regional architecture.

They also underscored the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, stability, maritime safety and security, freedom of navigation and overflight in the region, and other lawful uses of the seas and unimpeded lawful maritime commerce and to promote peaceful resolutions of disputes, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law.

Surely, one of the biggest challenges that India and ASEAN countries are facing in expanding their engagement is poor connectivity. Therefore the two sides reaffirmed commitment to enhance physical and digital connectivity in line with the MPAC 2025 and the AIM 2020 by, among others, availing of the $1 billion line of credit announced by India to promote physical infrastructure and digital connectivity.

They also encouraged the early completion of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project and extend this Trilateral Highway to Cambodia, Laos PDR and Vietnam. The two sides have expressed their desire to expand and deepen ties in the field of counter-terrorism, tourism, education and people-to-people contact, science and technology and others.

With the visit of 10 ASEAN leaders to India having scaled up the relationship to a new level, it should be hoped that the two sides will take concrete steps further to sustain and transform the relationship.

(The writer is Taiwan FOMA Visiting Fellow, National Chengchi University)