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3.2] India ASEAN Relations

India ASEAN Relations ASEAN Members

1. Introduction to India ASEAN Relations

India ASEAN Relations are one of the key partnership that will be shaping the emerging Asian century.

Five nations—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand—formed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on August 8, 1967, in Bangkok. Following that, it progressively grew as Vietnam joined on July 28, 1995, Laos and Myanmar on July 23, 1997, Cambodia on April 30, 1999, and Brunei Darussalam on January 8, 1984.

A prosperous and peaceful community of nations in Southeast Asia is built on a foundation of equality and partnership, as stated in the ASEAN Declaration, which also outlines the bloc’s goals and purposes: to promote regional peace and stability through respect for justice, the rule of law, and adherence to UN Charter principles; and to accelerate economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in the region through cooperative endeavours.

India and the ASEAN nations are related historically, religiously, culturally, and colonially. While there have been ups and downs in the relationship between India and ASEAN, overall, it has turned out to be a successful alliance.

2. India ASEAN Political relations

During the Cold War era, there was almost no interaction between Inia and ASEAN. India maintained relations with only a handful of ASEAN nations, despite the fact that both ASEAN and India had a common interest in the Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in the Indian Ocean region. Both sides shared a mutual suspicion stemming from political mistrust, economic inconsistency, and sporadic military threats. India actually believed that the United States (US) was trying to stop the spread of communism by creating ASEAN.

However, India’s view of regional organizations was altered by the fall of the Soviet Union, the concurrent waves of regionalism and globalization, China’s growth, the Asian financial crisis, and the US terrorist attacks of 2001. The declining level of security, India’s exclusion from international fora, and the growing balance of payments problem it faced in 1991 caused Indian policymakers to reconsider the value of interacting with regional organizations. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s tour to a few Southeast Asian nations marked a sea change in India’s foreign policy. Southeast Asia was definitely the emphasis of the Look East Policy (LEP), which was formally introduced in 1991 and envisioned India extending its arms to the whole Asia-Pacific region.

The India-ASEAN relationship has greatly improved since the start of what was then known as the LEP (now Act East Policy or AEP). Furthermore, several ASEAN states now have a strong choice because of India’s steady ascent to prominence. LEP’s goals included, among other things, institutionalizing ties to ASEAN and its affiliates, such as dialogue partnerships, ASEAN Plus One summit meetings, and membership in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF); bolstering bilateral ties with each ASEAN member state; and establishing India’s own position in the region in order to balance out China’s increasing influence in Southeast Asia. Increased mutual understanding led to the first-ever India-ASEAN summit in November 2002 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where it was decided to host the summit every year.

From being an ASEAN sectoral partner in 1992, India has progressed to a conversation partner in 1996, a summit level partner in 2002, and a strategic partner of ASEAN in 2012, as a result of the two countries’ steadily growing relationship. The ASEAN-India commemorative summit on the theme “Shared Values, Common Destiny” was held in New Delhi on January 25, 2018, after India and ASEAN observed 25 years of dialogue partnership, 15 years of summit level interaction, and 5 years of strategic partnership in 2017. The two regions also carried out a wide range of over 60 commemorative activities, both in India and through Indian missions in ASEAN states.

India ASEAN Leaders Meet

In 2014, the LEP was renamed AEP in an attempt to make the policy more dynamic and action oriented. India has also set up a separate mission to ASEAN and the EAS in Jakarta in April 2015 with a dedicated ambassador to strengthen engagement with ASEAN. The political and strategic ties between the two reached another milestone when heads of state or government of all the 10 ASEAN members graced India’s Republic Day in January 2018 in New Delhi.

Even though the two parties are commemorating 25 years of partnership, they feel that expectations have not been entirely fulfilled. India, for instance, feels that its attempts to expand her regional reach have not been met with greater force. However, ASEAN members believe that India’s capacity to offer security assurances, market access, and development support is still restricted. Without a question, India aims to strengthen its strategic footprint in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region under the AEP. India’s earnest attempts to expand eastward are demonstrated by its shifting focus from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to BIMSTEC and finally the Indo-Pacific. But when compared to China’s initiatives, these are rather minor.

3. India ASEAN Economic relations

Between India and Southeast Asia, there were very few economic and very few political contacts throughout the Cold War era. Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee requested in 2002 that ASEAN create a Free Trade Area (FTA) with India within the next ten years in order to foster trade and economic ties. Subsequently, he declared tariff breaks for the less developed nations in the area, such as Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar. In an effort to promote increased involvement from the commercial sector, the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry started hosting the India-ASEAN Business Summit meetings in 2002.

The initial framework agreement for ASEAN India FTA was signed on 8 October 2003 in Bali, Indonesia, and the final agreement in August 2009. The free trade area came into effect on 1 January 2010, and India hosted the latest ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit in New Delhi on 26 January 2018.

India enters the picture at a moment when the ASEAN leadership is seeking to expand its economic and strategic partnerships, as well as regional peace, stability, and prosperity, outside the Southeast area. According to data from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, ASEAN has become India’s fourth largest trading partner as of August 2018, with trade and investment between the two regions gradually increasing.

The Free Trade Agreement has helped ASEAN and India alike. India now has the chance to diversify its business partners thanks to the free trade agreement with ASEAN. During a meeting between Indian and ASEAN leaders in New Delhi in January 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he would work toward further strengthening economic ties with ASEAN and stated that trade had already grown “25 times in 25 years” since India–ASEAN dialogue partnership began a quarter of a century ago. He also said that “Investments are robust and growing. We will further enhance trade ties and work towards greater interaction among our business communities.”

In February 2019, Suresh Prabhu, the Indian Minister of Commerce, Industry, and Civil Aviation, gave the opening speech at the 4th India-ASEAN Expo and Summit 2019 in New Delhi. He stated that ASEAN has become India’s second-largest trading partner in the last fiscal year, accounting for 10.58 percent of India’s total trade. Between 2005–06 and 2017–18, our bilateral trade increased by more than three times, from 21 USD billion to 81.33 USD billion. India and ASEAN provide a different perspective despite worsening credit market conditions and rising trade tensions. This is a sign of our close business and economic ties and is crucial to the future interactions of India and ASEAN.

India ASEAN Trade Figures 2
India ASEAN Trade Figures

4. India ASEAN Social and cultural relations

In an effort to strengthen the social and cultural ties, the first international conference on “ASEAN-India Cultural Links: Historical and Contemporary Dimensions” was held in New Delhi from July 23–24,2015. The second such conference was held in Jakarta on January 19, 2017, under the theme of “International Conference on ASEAN-India Cultural and Civilisational Links.”

The importance of cultural ties between India and ASEAN was reiterated by the Indian External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, who said at the ASEAN–India youth awards ceremony in New Delhi on January 23, 2018,that “The cultural bonds between India and ASEAN  countries are centuries old and the onus is on us to propagate this special relationship amongst the youth in both the regions…From the Indian government’s side, we would like to institutionalize the relationship through a permanent mechanism so that the youth of ASEAN countries can partake of our cultural and religious ethos and become true ambassadors of India in their countries.”

The minister added that the religions of Buddhism and the Ramayana have united the people of Southeast Asia and India to such an extent that remnants of Indian culture may be found throughout the area. In order to understand how Indian culture has impacted Southeast Asia, Swaraj urged Indian youth to travel there.

In addition to these initiatives, India has been planning several programs to strengthen ties between the peoples of ASEAN and itself. These include bringing students from ASEAN nations to India on an annual basis for the purpose of student exchanges, providing ASEAN diplomats with specialized training, allowing parliamentarians to exchange, allowing ASEAN students to participate in the National Children’s Science Congress, the ASEAN-India Network of Think Tanks, the ASEAN-India Eminent Persons Lecture Series, and more.

5. India ASEAN Joint Projects

5.1 Mekong Ganga Cooperation

India ASEAN Mekong Ganga Cooperation

The Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) is an initiative by six countries – India and five ASEAN countries, namely, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam for cooperation in tourism, culture, education, as well as transport and communications. Initially called Ganga Suvarnabhumi Programme (GMSP), MGC was launched in November 2000 with the signing of the Vientiane Declaration.

Both the Ganga and the Mekong are civilizational rivers, and the MGC initiative aims to facilitate closer contacts among the people inhabiting these two major river basins. The MGC is also indicative of the cultural and commercial linkages among the member countries of the MGC down the centuries. Since its inception in the year 2000, 10 MGC Foreign ministers’ meetings (FMM) have taken place, the last being held in August 2019 in Bangkok. The MGC meetings are co-chaired alternatively every year between India and one of the 5 Mekong countries.

The four foundational areas of cooperation under MGC include tourism, culture, education, and transport & communication. It has further expanded to include new areas like health and traditional medicine, agriculture and allied sectors, small and medium enterprises, water resources management, science and technology, skill development, and capacity building.

5.2 Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP)

India ASEAN Kaladan Project

It is a $500mn project, connecting the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with Sittwe seaport in Rakhine State, Myanmar by sea. In Myanmar, it will then link Sittwe seaport to Paletwa in Chin State via the Kaladan river boat route, and then from Paletwa by road to Mizoram state in Northeast India.

With this project, Northeast India will now have a much shorter access to the International Sea Route. This is a far more feasible route for the trade and commerce of Northeast India, than the existing route via Siliguri to Kolkata, saving time, money and excelling efficiency. Apart from the Northeast India, this port will also unlock huge commercial potential for Bangladesh, Bhutan and even Nepal – apart from India and Myanmar – by acting as a bridge with the South East Asia.

Recently (April 2024), India has gained operational control over the Sittwe Port in Myanmar, following India Myanmar agreement of 2008. The agreement allows India Ports Global (IPGL), a company fully owned by the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, to manage the entire port on the Kaladan River, marking India’s second overseas port acquisition after Chabahar in Iran.

While the control over Sittwe port is good news, the progress of Kaladan project is troubled with internal conflicts of Myanmar. The project faces a definite setback after an important town of Paletwa in Myanmar (near Mizoram border) was captured recently by a rebel group in February 2024.

6. India ASEAN Security relations

Security was not given much thought when India first forged ties with ASEAN in the early 1990s. The leaders of ASEAN were cautious about becoming too involved in New Delhi’s security even while they were willing to explore economic relations with India. A few academics from Southeast Asia asserted that India’s rise to prominence as a military force in South Asia has created security issues, particularly for the nations in the region. Because of “its geographical location with South Asia,” they felt that India’s military might posed a direct or indirect security danger to Southeast Asian nations. The rise of China as a military force raised similar concerns for ASEAN.

Initially, ASEAN opposed India’s application for membership in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The leaders of ASEAN were concerned that India would bring up in the summit its challenging security issues involving China and Pakistan. In actuality, India’s original objective was to concentrate on institutional and economic cooperation. India attended a global debate on politics and security in the Asia-Pacific region for the first time in fifty years when it took part in the ARF and the ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conferences in 1996. However, both parties have strengthened their defence and security relationships over time, either jointly or separately.

As a result of China’s ascent in the area, India and Vietnam in particular have discovered a shared desire in dialogue and collaboration. India’s ONGC Videsh Ltd. (OVL) and Oil and Natural Gas Ltd. (ONGC) are working in Vietnam’s oil blocks in the South China Sea as part of their bilateral collaboration. Vietnam is one of the most significant nations in India’s AEP (Act East Policy) and has a unique relationship with India among the ASEAN members. Vietnam has backed India’s applications for membership in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the UN Security Council. And Vietnam backed India’s admission to the EAS (East Asia Summit) against China’s objections.

The strengthening of relations between the two nations has been significantly aided by India’s continuous backing of Vietnam in seeking a peaceful settlement of the SCS conflicts. When Vietnam was fighting to be freed from French colonial rule, India supported her as well. Additionally, Vietnam thinks that its alliances with the US and India will help offset China’s dominance in Southeast Asia.

India has been conducting joint military exercises with Singapore, another ASEAN nation, for a number of years. The most recent one was “Bold Kurukshetra 2019,” an annual joint army exercise that took place in April 2019. The two nations inked a supplementary Memorandum of Understanding on joint army drills in 2005 in addition to their first defence cooperation deal in October 2003.

Broadly speaking, besides the bilateral military or naval exercises with individual countries, India and ASEAN are cooperating in three security-related areas: counter-terrorism, cybersecurity, and maritime activities.

7. The South China sea disputes

INDIA ASEAN Relations South China Sea Dispute

The South China Sea (SCS) is something that ASEAN and India are both interested in. Similar to the ASEAN claimant states, India is in favour of unhindered commerce, peaceful settlement of the South China Sea disputes in compliance with international law, particularly the UNCLOS, and the exercise of restraint on the part of all parties in refraining from actions that could exacerbate the situation or raise tensions that could jeopardize peace and stability.

Since 2000, India’s navy has made several different types of deployments in the South China Sea. The first deployment occurred in 2000. Some are friendly port calls to coastal states including Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam, and some are a part of bilateral drills. China’s rising activity in the Indian Ocean has somewhat forced India to enhance its naval activity.

Since over 40% of its trade goes through the SCS, India is concerned about the escalating tensions in these conflicts. In order to meet its energy needs, New Delhi is also interested in utilizing the fossil resources in the area.

India, the United States, Japan, and Australia have formed the Quad, a multilateral security alliance, to safeguard the security of the Asia-Pacific region, which includes the South China Sea. There is disagreement over the Quad’s priorities, despite the fact that it is primarily seen as a security alliance meant to restrain or check China’s growing assertiveness and territorial ambitions as well as maintain the independence of vital maritime lanes. Additionally, India approaches the SCS problem with diligence to avoid being perceived as an ally of either the US or China.

8. India and RCEP

India RCEP Relations

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a free trade agreement among the Asia-Pacific nations of Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The 15 member countries account for about 30% of the world’s population (2.2 billion people) and 30% of global GDP ($29.7 trillion), making it the largest trade bloc in history.

The RCEP was conceived at the 2011 ASEAN Summit in Bali, Indonesia, while negotiations formally launched during the 2012 ASEAN Summit in Cambodia. India, took part in the initial negotiations but later decided to opt out, and is invited to join the bloc at any time.

8.1 Why India Stayed out of RCEP

India was a major part of the negotiations and agreed to the guiding principles of the RCEP up until November 2019. However, at the last moment, it decided to stay out of trade agreement. We can attribute this decision by Indian policymakers to the following reasons:

  1. There is a fear that the accord would be turned into a free trade agreement with China through the back door, maybe via other nations. This will result in Chinese dumping of cheap imports, affecting local producers.
  2. Even without a trade agreement, India’s trade with China is skewed. Hence, FTA would have worsened India’s trade deficit with China.
  3. The study of FTA also showed that it would result in unfair and unsustainable trade deficit for India.
  4. India proposed a three-tier approach for tariff reduction to the member countries. It proposed different tariffs for 1) ASEAN, 2) for countries that already have an FTA with India, and 3) countries not having existing trade agreements with countries like China and Australia. However, the RCEP member countries required a greater reduction in tariff lines.
  5. Above all, India also was concerned about China’s overall weight in the grouping and the disproportionate power it enjoys in the agreement (because of its large economy).

9. Scholarly Opinions on India ASEAN Relations

9.1 Kishore Mahbubani

ASEAN is an example of pragmatic regionalism. Instead of blindly imitating European Union, ASEAN countries develop their own model as per the situation prevailing in the region. The grouping went for more flexible, consensus based and informal norms.

The ASEAN way is slower but politically viable. It never progressed in linear manner, rather, its movement has been like a crab.

In his book ASEAN Miracle, Kishore Mahbubani suggests that with ASEAN, South East Asia has achieved very high degree of peace and stability despite being one of the most diverse regions. The approximate population of the area is 660 million. Out of this, around 250 million are Muslims, 125 million are Christians, 150 million Buddhist and millions of Hindus and followers of other religion. Similarly per capita income of Singapore is $ 52,936 and that of Laos is $ 1,353. In terms of size of the population Indonesia is a giant with 261 million people while Brunei’s population is just 4,50,000.

It is to be noted that the academic community was skeptical of success of ASEAN. British historian C A Fisher called the region as ‘Balkans of Asia’. However, ASEAN defied all skepticism and has emerged as an oasis of cooperation in an hostile prone region of the world.

ASEAN is the 4th largest economy in the world. Its GDP was $95bn in 1970 which has become $4.28 trillion in 2022. Currently, it is the 7th largest market, and 3rd largest source of labour. With collective efforts, ASEAN has strengthened security in the region. ASEAN has been able to establish itself as a community by following the culture of ‘mysyawarah’ (consultation) & ‘mufakat’ (consensus). EU was once the gold standard whereas ASEAN has become a way of future. ASEAN has not only contributed for the peace and prosperity of its own people but of the entire region in Asia Pacific.

9.2 Rajiv Bhatia

Ex diplomat Rajiv Bhati suggests that with assertive China driving BRI, destructive USA, India has to navigate carefully. Lee Kuan Yew has already suggested that ‘India must be a part of South East Asia’s balance of forces.’ It is high time that India should draw to-do list and do some heavy-lifting. There are opportunities for India as China has changed from friendly Panda to fiery dragon. China no longer exports revolutions but has economic weight to subjugate smaller neighbours and impose new form of neo-colonialism.

10. Conclusion

Recent years have seen the implementation of the ASEAN-India partnership for peace, progress, and shared prosperity through the “Plan of Action (2016–20) to implement the ASEAN-India partnership.” The leaders of ASEAN-India evaluated the strategic alliance and future course of action under three areas: political-security, economic, and socio-cultural during their 21st meeting of senior officials, held in New Delhi in April 2019. India’s emphasis on forging a deeper and more comprehensive partnership with ASEAN is a result of both the country’s own economic liberalization drive and the enormous shifts in the global political and economic landscape that have occurred since the early 1990s.

India’s quest for economic room gave rise to the LEP. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi renamed the LEP as the AEP in 2014 in an effort to redouble the nation’s economic efforts in Southeast Asia. Since then, India has set aside a $1 billion line of credit for digital and physical connections between India and ASEAN. For India, ASEAN is essential to its AEP. Due to shared interests as well as the geopolitical threat posed by China’s rise and the need to counterbalance it, India and ASEAN are dedicated to fortifying their bilateral ties.

Seeing the way that India and ASEAN collaboration has developed over the previous 20 years, it is likely that this relationship will only get stronger in the future.

Posted in PSIR NOTES

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