The Indian Ocean zone has been a hub of economic expansion for many years and is amongthe world’s most active. Hence, these areas continue to see changes in geopolitics and geostrategic alignment. These changes provide both opportunities and difficulties. On the one hand, the region’s economic expansion creates opportunities for collaboration to reduce poverty and raise millions of people’s living standards. On the other side, the emergence of material, or economic and military, powers necessitates preventing the growth of distrust, error, and conduct based on a zero-sum game. However, equally important is the Indo-Pacific region in today’s era. Indo-Pacific is a very contested place due to the involvement of several countries in the region. ASEAN countries constitute the centre zone of the Indo-Pacific region and hold significance. This commentary will talk about ASEAN centrality in the region and India’s ties with ASEAN. Along these lines, the commentary will also talk about how India can leverage its ties with ASEAN for a greater role in the Indo-Pacific.
ASEAN Centrality in Indo-Pacific
Geographically, ASEAN is situated in the center of the Indo-Pacific region, which has grown increasingly congested and contentious with a rise in the likelihood of big power confrontations. Many Indo-Pacific nations have been interacting with ASEAN on a bilateral, regional, and multilateral basis including India. India being a key player in the Indo-Pacific region wants to strengthen its ties with ASEAN and leverage from the diplomatic relations they have with the countries.
Southeast Asian nations were initially divided and hesitant to accept the notion due completely and formally to China’s sensitivity towards the Indo-Pacific. Yet, as the Indo-Pacific architecture changed, ASEAN was forced to reconsider its stance due to the shifting geopolitical problems and fresh security concerns. Because that ASEAN interacts with all major nations, it was necessary for it to take a more strategic stance towards the emerging Indo-Pacific geopolitics. While the Indo-Pacific is still being internalised into ASEAN’s strategic culture, the ASEAN Member States (AMS) are beginning to realise that this new architecture is here to stay.
The ASEAN Orientation on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), which was established in June 2019, aims to advance a regional order in the Indo-Pacific that is based on norms. The AOIP offers a roadmap for ASEAN’s involvement in the Indo-Pacific zone and emphasizes ASEAN-led institutions to deepen sub-regional as well as regional cooperation, which could help preserve peace, freedom, and prosperity. It also supports ASEAN Centrality. The AOIP presented a comprehensive picture of the Indo-Pacific and ASEAN’s perspective on it. It makes two geographical claims, the first of which is that ASEAN sees the Indo-Pacific as including both the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean regions. The second claim is that ASEAN views the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions as intimately interwoven and interrelated, with ASEAN serving a crucial and strategic role. ASEAN does not view these regions as just adjacent territorial territories. The AOIP also concentrated on four key areas: maritime cooperation, connectivity, UN SDG 2030, and economic as well as other areas of collaboration in order to realize the ASEAN vision for the Indo-Pacific.
As a result of ASEAN Centrality, the Association of Southeast Asian States (ASEAN) is required to take the initiative, be in charge of developing a shared vision, and be in charge of putting that vision into action. ASEAN Centrality has had unwavering backing from New Delhi. With ASEAN Centrality as its foundation, India’s Act East Policy and Indo-Pacific policy complement one another. India is attempting to harmonize its Act East Policy with the ASEAN Perspective on the Indo-Pacific through the Security and Growth for Everyone in the Region (SAGAR) and Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative (IPOI) initiatives (AOIP).
The following essential components make up the ASEAN Perspective on the Indo-Pacific:
The primary objective of the ASEAN Perspective on the Indo-Pacific is to maintain freedom, prosperity, and peace and India strongly supports this objective and ASEAN centrality in the region.
India and ASEAN
The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) comprises of Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Vietnam. India’s focus on a strengthened and multi-faceted relationship with ASEAN is an outcome of the significant changes in the world’s political and economic scenario since the early 1990s and India’s own march towards economic liberalisation. The search for economic changes led India to develop it’s “Look East” policy. “Look East” policy today has grown to be known as “Act East” Policy. PM at the 12th ASEAN India Summit and the 9th East Asia Summit held in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, in November 2014, formally enunciated the Act East Policy.
The Act-East Policy emphasizes Connectivity, Commerce and Culture as the focus areas of action for a greater ASEAN-India integration. It considers the blueprints of the three pillars of ASEAN community building process, the ASEAN vision document ASEAN 2025-Forging Ahead Together, the ASEAN Master Plan for Connectivity 2025, the ASEAN ICTMaster Plan 2020, and the Initiative for ASEAN Integration Work Plan III. India and ASEAN are also cooperating on various levels to achieve their shared goals i.e., peace and prosperity.
Areas of Cooperation
India and ASEAN are cooperating in various domains:
Defence– The preservation of regional peace and stability is something that both India and ASEAN are interested in. They agreed to a Joint Declaration on Military Cooperation that would serve as a roadmap for their future strategic alliance. India has benefited ASEAN as a partner in this area. It has assisted ASEAN nations in enhancing their defense capacities. The collaboration between ASEAN and India in this area may be improved by frequent interactions between military and academic leaders.
There are several cooperative military drills between India and ASEAN. By exchanging information and conducting joint investigations, intelligence services may start working together to combat terrorism. Concern should be expressed over rising Chinese assertiveness and aggressiveness in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Oppose China in the area, it has prompted ASEAN to seek out a collaboration with India. In order to ensure maritime security, India and ASEAN are crucial allies. The most recent joint exercise between the two is the maiden ASEAN-India Maritime Exercise will be held in 2023.
Countering Climate Change- India and ASEAN are significant participants in the worldwide effort to address the issue of climate change. In order to combat maritime pollution, ASEAN, and India work together and conduct EEO (Environmental Emergency Operations), in which both parties may contribute their own specialties. They may establish a shared research and development facility. Eventually, the two parties may work together to produce solar and wind energy. It can lessen both their reliance on fossil fuels and carbon emissions.
Connectivity- One of India’s and ASEAN Member States’ strategic goals is to strengthen connectivity, particularly land and marine connectivity, with ASEAN. The ASEAN Connectivity Coordination Committee (ACCC) and India often communicate on connectivity. The trilateral highway connecting India, Burma, and Thailand is the key project underneath the ASEAN-India Connectivity Project. The Trilateral Task Force on Connectivity and Infrastructure between India, Burma, and Thailand has been established to conduct time-bound work on completing the Trilateral Highway and to carry out discussions on the Motor Vehicles Agreement. Consultations between India and ASEAN are underway on the extension of the Trilateral Highway to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Moreover, India and ASEAN are attempting to improve maritime connectivity.
There are various other areas where both India and ASEAN are operating on close grounds and the 19th summit between the two is a proof that India and ASEAN have good ties that are bound to benefit both parties in the long run.
Leveraging ties with ASEAN
The ASEAN-India summit that was held in Cambodia commemorated the 30th anniversary of the diplomatic ties between India and ASEAN. The meeting’s main agenda items included bilateral trade, infrastructure investments, and securing a free and open Indo-Pacific. Several of the historical and cultural ties between India and Southeast Asia were reinforced at the summit. It also reaffirmed New Delhi’s support for fundamental ideas like ASEAN’s regional clout and a shared vision for an open and free Indo-Pacific.
According to a joint statement released after the summit, both sides reaffirmed “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 recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the relevant standards and recommended practices by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization.”
The Joint Statement also reiterated the commitment to enhance India-ASEAN cooperation in various areas such as maritime activities, counterterrorism, transnational crimes, cyber security, digital economy, regional connectivity, smart agriculture, environment, science & technology, tourism, among other areas. The Joint Statement also proposes expediting the review of ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) to make it more user-friendly, simple, and trade-facilitative.
For both security and economic reasons, India requires robust diplomatic relationships with ASEAN members. India may be able to increase its footprint in the Indo-Pacific zone and amongst Southeast Asian countries by improving its linkages with the ASEAN countries. These connection initiatives help maintain Northeast part of India in a central position, assuring the north-eastern states’ economic development. The linkages will also serve as a counter to China’s influence in the area as well as a boost to economic growth for India would result from improved commercial relations with the ASEAN countries. As the majority of India’s trade is reliant on maritime security, ASEAN holds a key place in the rules-based Indo-Pacific’s security architecture. In order to fight terrorism, tax evasion, and other issues, cooperation with ASEAN countries is essential. However, there has always been a connection between India and ASEAN, more has to be done to encourage it on land, at sea, in the air, and in cyberspace as well.
India-ASEAN relations have a promising future. Although the two sides have developed close ties and achieved significant progress over the last few decades, there is still enormous room for development. It is very well realised by India that ASEAN is a central pillar in the Indo-Pacific and India supports it with a full heart. India must strengthen its naval might, long seen as the “Cinderella service” of the armed forces, if sea routes are to remain free and open the same could be achieved. A larger portion of India’s defense budget was given to its naval forces with the implementation of its Look East strategy. The navy will be able to assume its responsibilities as the Indo-Pacific region’s “net security provider” thanks to this money.
If India accepts a “swing state” position in deciding the Indo-Pacific power balance, it will be in the greatest position to acquire influence and actively shape the global order. An isolated India is unlikely to evoke much support or attention from its neighbours, much less excitement. A poor economy is insufficient as a base for successful multilateral or plurilateral diplomacy that gains allies and shapes attitudes in India’s neighbourhood or for the force projection necessary to serve as a net security provider. In this sense ASEAN ties are important for India in the marine domain and otherwise for economic development. The idea of a greater Asian federation, with India serving as a vital hub for links throughout the continent, if India leverages from the relationships it has built.
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