India and ASEAN – Expanding the Cooperative Agenda


From benign neglect to constructive engagement, Dr Mohammad Samir Hussain understands the significant transformation in the India-ASEAN relationship

Political understanding between India and ASEAN started on a low profile after the disintegration of the erstwhile Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. After several decades of neglect, India-ASEAN relations have started to gain momentum in recent years. The post-Cold War global strategic developments have impacted the relationship between India and ASEAN, leading to significant improvements in relations. Today, both sides are well-placed to expand their cooperation. They do not have any bilateral territorial disputes, security fears or any sort of conflicts.

There are strong bases for cooperation between India and ASEAN. India shares ASEAN’s vision and its principles of harmonious and good neighbourly relations. As India has consistently supported ASEAN as the driving force in the further evolution of on-going regional processes, their cooperation in shaping the future of Asia appears only natural. Furthermore, reinforcing ASEAN’s much needed centrality while offering India a non-threatening platform to interact with other regional powers can be mutually beneficial. This common vision also comes with high strategic value. In a climate of growing implicit tensions, to work and engage on a revisited but consensual political vision for the future is of major interest to all parties.1

The turn of twenty-first century provides great opportunities to expand a cooperative agenda that will in turn enhance their common good as well as individual autonomy, leverage and status in the global order. India and ASEAN share many common social, political and economic problems, besides a long land and maritime boundary. They need to maintain peace and expand prosperity through an uncertain and complex post-Cold War security and strategic climate. Besides, political understanding has improved on various bilateral, regional and global issues. Together, they could enhance Asia’s ability to cope with rapid social and economic change, democratisation, and maintain stability in multi-ethnic states. Growing high level political exchanges and dialogues indicate that this is being realised in both India and ASEAN.2

New Horizons in India’s Look East Destiny

India’s sustained effort to closely engage with ASEAN nations paid rich dividends when its status was upgraded from sectoral dialogue partner to a full dialogue partner in 1995. With this, India’s interaction with ASEAN has moved from the senior official to the ministerial level and has shown the way for India’s participation in the Post Ministerial Conference (PMC) of ASEAN. At the PMC held in Jakarta in July 1996, ASEAN and Indian Ministers outlined a vision of a shared destiny and intensified cooperation in all fields, identifying specific areas for cooperation in areas such as infrastructure, human resource development, science and technology, tourism and others. However, India’s admission to the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1996, and a summit level partner at par with other important partners such as China, Japan and Korea in 2002 was a significant development that will open up avenues for future progress. It demonstrated India’s rising heft in Southeast Asia.3

With India’s admission to the ARF, and a full dialogue partnership with ASEAN, the stage was now set for New Delhi to look for new horizons. Pursuant to the decision on the ASEAN-India Dialogue Partnership, an ASEAN-India Joint Cooperation Committee (AIJCC) was established. The AIJCC is a key institutional mechanism for providing substantive content and implementing programmes of cooperation. India’s former External Affairs Minister, I K Gujral, on the occasion of the Post Ministerial Conference (PMC) of ASEAN made a statement:

“We see the full Dialogue Partnership with ASEAN as the manifestation of our Look-East destiny. This is because we are geographically inseparable, culturally conjoined and now more than ever before, economically and strategically interdependent and complementary. As the curtains of past misperceptions fall, there is mutual recognition of the rich harvest that can be reaped from moving from derived to more direct ASEAN-India relationship and dialogue. ASEAN is now in many ways the core of Asia’s larger regional and global engagement in South-East Asia-Pacific and Europe. India’s partnership with ASEAN will have an impact on India’s economic, political and security related involvement in these larger, concentric coalitions around ASEAN and in turn, contribute to ASEAN’s own objectives.”4

Summits and Visits – Enhanced Political Understanding

The decision taken by India and ASEAN to hold an ASEAN-India summit is a reflection of the growing maturity in the political understanding between the two. The first ASEAN-India Summit was held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in November 2002. These summits, held every year, provide a key platform to discuss issues of bilateral and regional concern. At the second summit meeting which took place in Bali, Indonesia in October 2003, India and ASEAN signed three important documents – Framework Agreement for Comprehensive Economic Cooperation, the establishment of an India-ASEAN Regional Trade and Investment Area (RITA) including the setting up of an ASEAN-India Free Trade Area in goods, services and investments; India’s accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South-East Asia; and, a joint Declaration for Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism. In a move that would further strengthen the close ties, India and ASEAN nations during the third ASEAN Summit held in Laos, signed the ‘India-ASEAN Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity’. It contains a long-term vision for boosting trade, investment, tourism, culture, sports and people-to-people contact. It also included an Action Plan touching upon the entire gamut of political and security cooperation, including food, human resources, energy, finance, science and technology, IT, communication technology, health and agriculture. Moreover, both sides also agreed to promote a long term cooperative partnership by adopting a Plan of Action to implement specific activities and projects.5

The political understanding to transform the partnership into a strategic one is reflected in the increasing frequency of high-level official visits from India to ASEAN and vice versa. The last one decade has witnessed an enormous rise in the frequency and intensity of contacts between India and ASEAN at the highest levels of government and among officials and non-officials. This emerging trend has highlighted an increased awareness on both sides of the massive potential for enhancement of multilateral cooperation encompassing political, economic, defence and security.

From the Indian side, former President Pratibha Devisingh Patil paid an official visit to Laos and Cambodia in September 2010. Former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh visited Vietnam for the eighth India-ASEAN Summit and fifth East Asia Summits in October 2010. From the ASEAN side, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was invited as the Chief Guest on India’s Republic Day celebration in 2011. Such visits were aimed at expanding the overall partnership between the two sides. During this visits, both sides discussed ways and means to expand the strategic partnership at the highest level.6

It is clear that the nature of the India-ASEAN relationship has undergone a significant transformation from benign neglect to constructive engagement. The relationship has seen an upward trajectory after the successful formulation of India’s Look East Policy in the early 1990s. The Look East Policy has been vital to India gaining strategic weight in Southeast Asia and beyond. Increasing understanding between India and ASEAN has enabled the partnership to gain endurance and comprehensiveness. Both India and ASEAN have made remarkable progress in their engagement but still a lot needs to be done for further growth and deepening of mutually advantageous relations. Today, ASEAN nations have become an inevitable partner for India and vice versa, and will continue to be in the coming decades. Going by the current trend, the future of India and ASEAN cooperation in political, economic, technological and military spheres holds great prospects.

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Dr Mohammad Samir Hussain

Dr Mohammad Samir Hussain is a post-doctoral fellow of Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi.

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    1 Sophie Boisseau du Rocher, “ASEAN-India Political Cooperation: How to Reinforce a Much-Needed Pillar”, IFRI Center for Asian Studies, March 2013, p. 12.

    2 Sujit Datta, “India and ASEAN: A Framework for Comprehensive Engagement”, Institute of Defence and Security Analysis, New Delhi, available at

    3 Thongkholal Haokip, “India’s Look East Policy: Its Evolution and Approach”, South Asian Survey, Vol. 18, No. 1, 2011, pp. 249-50.

    4 Sukhdeep Singh, “India and the ASEAN Since 1991: Challenges and Prospects ”, Ph.D Thesis Submitted to the Department of Political Science, Punjabi University, Patiala, November 2011, pp. 133-34.

    5 Ibid., pp. 143-45.

    6 Annual Report 2010-11, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi, p. ii.

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