India and ASEAN: The ACT East Ambit

Perspective By Ambassador Anil Trigunayat (IFS retd)*

Perspective

As a reflection of the interest of ASEAN and India to intensify their engagement, the ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity, which sets out the roadmap for long-term ASEAN-India engagement, was signed at the 3rd ASEAN-India Summit in 2004 in Vientiane.

A game of Golf did it. Through a simple yet profound two page Bangkok Declaration, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was conceived and established on August 8, 1967, when the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines signed it. Later it encompassed the other five countries from the region. Facing several conflicts among the members they resolved to overcome them appropriately through dialogue and cooperation. The Motto was and is “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”. Since then ASEAN has emerged as one of the most important, well integrated and viable regional organisation with broad-based institutional networks. During its five decades of existence, despite obvious challenges and global economic downturns, connectivity and developmental issues, ASEAN has moved apace from strength to strength and successfully overcame the inherent constraints. With the rise of China as a regional and aspirational global power, it has become highly relevant in the international security, strategic and economic architecture in the Indo-Pacific - hitherto Asia-Pacific framework. India during the past quarter century has speeded and deepened its engagement with ASEAN directly and through other countries and partners like Japan, Australia and the US. To further cement this, the India-Japan Act East Forum met in New Delhi to chart out a strategic course within the ambit of its "Act East Policy".

On November 13-14, 2017, the Organisation celebrated its Golden Jubilee at the 31st ASEAN Summit with the theme “Partnering for Change, Engaging with the World”. Setting the tone, President Duterte of Philippines and Chairman of the Summit stressed that “terrorism and violent extremism endanger the peace, stability and security of our region because these threats know no boundaries. Piracy and armed robbery in the seas put a dent on our growth and disrupt the stability of both regional and global commerce. The menace of illegal drug trade continues to endanger the very fabric of our societies.” A landmark agreement on the ASEAN Consensus on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers was signed that strengthens social protection, access to justice, humane and fair treatment, and access to health services for the peoples of the region. Other deliverables included those concerning health, women and youth, terrorism, radicalization and violent extremism, trafficking, poverty alleviation, food security, coastal and marine environment, and the pursuit of innovation for regional economies, among others to achieve the ASEAN vision 2025 by pursuing (a) A people-oriented and people-centered ASEAN; (b) Peace and stability in the region; (c) Maritime security and cooperation; (d) Inclusive, innovation-led growth; (e) ASEAN’s resiliency; and (f) ASEAN: a model of regionalism, a global player. But one has to concede that given the changing dynamic in the region and growing interest of the international players and big powers to constrain a single country hegemony the member countries will be faced with difficult choices.

The issue of the South China Sea was expected to be one of the key irritants while the 20th ASEAN-China Summit was held. But as a result of consultations with Philippine President, the Chinese were confident of finding a broader dialogue mechanism having committed over US$ 3.34 bn for infrastructure development and billions in other aid. Chinese Premier Li Kequiang, who led the delegation to ASEAN and EAS, maintained that they would bilaterally resolve disputes with its neighbours over the South China Sea and that would convert it into “Sea of Cooperation and Friendship” perhaps to the dismay of some extra-regional powers. Duterte was the clear winner as he managed to leverage the Summit to improve and smoothen ties with the US while assuring China that their recent bonhomie is intact.

At a CII meet, Singapore PM said that “India had far too long looked westwards and ignored its eastern neighbourhood”. It was only in 1992 that our “Look East” policy found some traction with sectoral partnership that eventually got converted to Full dialogue partner and India became part of the ASEAN Regional Forum. In 2012 India signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement. In 2014 with a view to integrate our North East region with ASEAN and to take the relationship to the next level Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared the “Act East Policy” that has seen tremendous movement and engagement both at sub-regional and regional level including cutting a new pie of cooperation across SAARC-ASEAN landscape like BBIN and BIMSTEC. During the last few years, India’s ties with the region have seen drastic improvement and closer collaboration in the domain of trade, economic, cultural, security and defence cooperation due to geopolitical developments and economic compulsions.

India-ASEAN trade and investment relations have been growing steadily, with ASEAN being India’s fourth largest trading partner. India’s trade with ASEAN stands at US$ 81.33 billion, which is approx. 10.6 percent of India’s overall trade. India’s export to ASEAN stands at 11.28 percent of our total exports. Investment flows are also substantial both ways, with ASEAN accounting for approximately 18.28 percent of investment flows into India since 2000. FDI inflows into India from ASEAN between April 2000 to March 2018 was about US$68.91 billion, while FDI outflows from India to ASEAN countries, from April 2007 to March 2015, as per data maintained by DEA, was about US$38.672 billion. The ASEAN-India Free Trade Area has been completed with the entering into force of the ASEAN-India Agreements on Trade in Service and Investments on 1 July 2015. Hopefully, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement will be signed soon.

As a reflection of the interest of ASEAN and India to intensify their engagement, the ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity, which sets out the roadmap for long-term ASEAN-India engagement, was signed at the 3rd ASEAN-India Summit in 2004 in Vientiane. A Plan of Action (POA) for the period 2004-2010 was also developed to implement the Partnership. The 3rd POA (2016-20) was adopted by the ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers Meeting held in August 2015. Furthermore, ASEAN and India have identified priority areas for the period of 2016-2018 and are already implementing activities under it, which would contribute towards the successful implementation of the 2016-2020 Plan of Action.

All the member states of ASEAN and US and Japan wish to see enhanced Indian engagement in the region as India is perceived as a benevolent regional power. Highlighting the importance India attaches to the region, Indian leaders including President, Prime Minister and Vice President have visited all the ASEAN countries. In 2017, India celebrated 25 years of its bilateral cooperation with ASEAN and 5th anniversary of strategic engagement as well as 15th ASEAN-India Dialogue Summit. All the 10 Heads of States from ASEAN participated as Chief Guests at the Republic Day 2019. Underscoring the mutual strength PM Modi said that “in the near future South Asia and South East Asia will be the development engine of the world and that Government of India’s Act East policy puts ASEAN at the centre of our engagement”. India’s commitment to deepening the historic ties is governed by 3 Cs – Commerce, Connectivity and Culture and mutually beneficial and sustaining historic ties.

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