Connectivity: Sacrosanct to the ASEAN-India Relations

Spotlight By Dr Temjenmeren Ao*

Connectivity: Sacrosanct to the ASEAN-India Relations

Since the 1980s, the ASEAN nations by adopting a mixed form of capitalism have achieved economic growth figures of between 6 to 15 percent annually. This economic dynamism of ASEAN represented a promising growth area of the world which India saw with great potential for its economic outreach. s from over 40 countries.

India has been connected with nations in Southeast Asia for centuries which has ensured an uninterrupted people-to-people contact for religious pilgrimage and trade. Connectivity continues to be a key element for the ASEAN-India partnership. This would not only strengthen socio-cultural connect but given the increasing economic and security ties it would help deepen as well as broaden the scope of the partnership. The importance of connectivity as the major driver in the overall ASEAN-India relations is very much evident given the fact that in December 2017, the first-ever ASEAN-India Connectivity Summit was held at New Delhi which saw the active participation from India and all the ten ASEAN states.

Building the ASEAN-India Economic Relations

Even though India’s relation with the nations in Southeast Asia goes back a long way, our diplomatic and in particular economic relations are comparatively recent. Further, the imperatives of the Cold War geopolitics inevitably drew India and nations of ASEAN apart with both looking at each other from the Cold War prism – in which India was seen to be pro-Soviet and some States in Southeast Asia as pro-West. Until about the late-1980s it was customary to look at India-ASEAN relations largely in the context of shared Civilisational, cultural, and historical prisms. While this still forms an important basis of the relationship, the changes following the end of the Cold war that witnessed the emergence of new centres of power, partnerships and alliances, ensured that the old relations are re-evaluated and reshaped. The ASEAN-India relation was no exception to this given the huge potential of a win-win partnership through a more diverse and deeper engagement.

Since the 1980s, the ASEAN nations by adopting a mixed form of capitalism have achieved economic growth figures of between 6 to 15 percent annually. This economic dynamism of ASEAN represented a promising growth area of the world which India saw with great potential for its economic outreach. The need to push economic relations with Southeast Asia was one of the major agendas of the Indian government in the post Cold War period. During a lecture titled “India and the Asia-pacific: Forging a New Relationship”, delivered by our former Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao on September 8, 1994 in Singapore, the Look East policy was for the first enunciated. The Look East policy was based on building India’s relations with its Eastern neighbours starting with the nations in Southeast Asia and with economics at the core. The underlining agenda towards pushing economic engagement with Southeast Asia was a necessity given the fragility of the Indian economy at that time. India’s ‘Look East’ policy along with the August 13, 1991Government of India’s Statement on Trade Policy announced in the Parliament wherein reduction in controls, simplified procedures, and creation of a congenial environment for trade were announced ushered in a new era of foreign trade policy in India.1

India was invited to be a sectoral partner of ASEAN in 1992 that helped promote trade, investment, and tourism relations. The joint trade committee which was set up after 1992 helped coordinate economic exchanges. Further, the ASEAN-India Trade Negotiation Committee and the ASEAN-India Economic Ministers’ Meetings provided inputs for fruitful economic contacts. In 1995 India was made a full dialogue partner that provided a broader agenda for cooperation which also included the areas of security and political cooperation. After the elevation of India into a dialogue partner status, the ASEAN-India Joint Cooperation committee and India-ASEAN Working Group on Trade and Investment were established. Thus, India’s diplomatic outreach to its eastern neighbors through the ‘Look East’ policy where economics was at the core paid off as India was able to improve its economic relations with the nations of ASEAN. It must also be noted that the Indian economic structure driven by its service orientation was largely complementary to the light manufacturing sectors that dominated the ASEAN economies. This also helped fortify the ASEAN-India economic relations.2 In less than four years from 1992 to 1996, India’s two-way trade with ASEAN more than doubled to US$ 6 billion and crossed the target of US$ 10 billion in the year 2002. With the signing of the Free trade agreement in August 2009, India’s trade with ASEAN continued to grow which currently stands at US$ 81.33 billion, and constitutes 10.6 percent of India’s overall trade.3

Connectivity helps in propelling the relations

Since ancient times connectivity is the key element in forging India’s relations with nations in Southeast Asia. Indian merchants in order to carry out trade with its immediate neighbours were one of the first to build contact with the region and this paved the way for religious missionaries consisting of the Brahmins and Buddhist monks to spread their theological teachings. The ASEAN-India relations which were first re-drawn through the ‘Look East’ policy enabled the building of economic as well as helped broaden the scope of the bilateral partnership. The announcement of the ‘Act East’ policy in 2014 provides the opportunity to further deepen the relations by accelerating the scope of our connectivity partnership.

One of the on-going projects is the Kaladan multi modal transit Transport Project, whose framework was signed in 2008 between the Government of India and the Government of Myanmar. The project as indicated in figure one includes a waterways component of 158 km on the Kaladan River from Sittwe to Paletwa in Myanmar and a road component of 129 km from Paletwa to Zorinpui on the India-Myanmar border in Mizoram State. This project, which will help connect Sittwe Port in Myanmar to the India-Myanmar border is expected to contribute to the economic development of the North-Eastern States of India by opening up the sea route for the movement of products. It also provides a strategic link to the North-East thereby reducing pressure on the Siliguri Corridor.

Figure One: Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project4

There is also the India-Myanmar Thailand Trilateral Highway (IMTTH) which is a cross-border transportation network being financed by the government of India, Myanmar, and Thailand. The 1,400 km long IMTTH project as indicated in figure two would link the North East Region of India to the countries in Southeast Asia by land and give a boost to trade, business, health, education and strengthen tourism ties among the three countries. Union Minister Mr. Nitin Gadkari on January 23, 2018, stated that the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway is likely to be operational by December 2019.

Figure Two: India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway5

Further through the Mekong-India Economic Corridor there is a plan to construct a sea route linking Chennai Port with Dawei deep-sea port in Myanmar and Laem Chabang deep-sea port in Thailand. As shown in figure three,by linking Chennai’s port to the Laem Chabang port of Thailand, the economic corridor would help in facilitating the transportation of various raw materials and parts to the various industries of India and the ASEAN states.

Figure Three: Sea route linking Chennai Port with Dawei deep-sea port in Myanmar and Laem Chabang deep-sea port in Thailand6

India remains committed and attaches importance to infrastructure development with nations of Southeast Asia. The Moreh-Tamu land route between India and Myanmar which was opened in August 2018 is one such recently completed and operationalised connectivity project. Further, consensus on finalising the proposed protocol of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Motor Vehicle Agreement (Trilateral MVA) has also been reached. These projects and agreement will have a critical role in realising seamless movement of passenger, personal, and cargo vehicles along roads linking India to Southeast Asia.

Today there is a consensus amongst ASEAN and India on the need towards establishing measures to intensify connectivity by expanding it into other domains. The move towards enhancing soft connectivity through digital networks in the sea and space is one such area for collaboration. This would enable deeper cooperation while also expanding the scope of the partnership such as help secure the sea lanes that continue to remain under threat. In order to achieve this, robust networks of infrastructure such as roads, airports, ports, railways and power grids, become pre-requisite in complementing the broader connectivity agenda. These new areas of connectivity part of the ASEAN Master Plan 2025 – which India also supports – indicates that today connectivity cannot be restricted only to hard infrastructural connectivity but needs to expand into the digital domain. This provides new scope for ASEAN-India cooperation and collaboration in terms of capacity and capability building. Here both can pool in their technology and know-how in order to devise solution for our impending challenges. Connectivity in the form of roadways, rails, sea links, as well as digital networks remain crucial and is at the core of ASEAN-India partnership todaywith the underlying goal to usher in peace, security, and prosperity for India, ASEAN and beyond the region.


1 UN Moorthy and K Srinivas, “The New Foreign Trade Policy: Some New Findings”, in PV Sarma and LK Mohana Rao (edi), New Trade Policy (2004-2009) and WTO Regime, (Kanishka Publishers, Distributors, New Delhi, 2005), p. 66-67.

2 Ganganath Jha, “India-Southeast Asia Relations- An Appraisal”, in Sudhir Kumar Singh (edi), Post 9/11 Indian Foreign Policy: Challenges and Opportunities, (Pentagon Press: New Delhi, 2009), p. 135-139.

3 “India-ASEAN Relations”, Ministry of External Affairs,, accessed on February 5, 2019.

4 See:

5 See:

6 For Map See:, accessed on June 22, 2018.

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