[Sansad TV] Perspective: India- ASEAN Relations

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  • India and ASEAN region is celebrating 30th Anniversary of their ASEAN-India Dialogue Relations in 2022.
  • The year is embarked as ‘ASEAN-India Friendship Year’.
  • The year also witnessed few key bilateral visits and meetings.

Key takeaways from the dialogue

  • Member states of ASEAN and India have decided to establish meaningful, substantive and mutually beneficial Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships.
  • Both sides also reaffirmed the importance of maintaining ASEAN Centrality in the evolving regional architecture in the Indo-Pacific.
  • Both sides decided to enhance cooperation on cyber security, counter terrorism and digital economy and expedite the review of ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement.

What is ASEAN?

  • ASEAN is a political and economic union of 10 member states in Southeast Asia.
  • It brings together ten Southeast Asian states – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – into one organisation.
  • It was established on 8th August 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand with the signing of the Bangkok Declaration by the founding fathers of the countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines.
  • The preceding organisation was the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA) comprising of Thailand, the Philippines, and Malaysia.
  • Five other nations joined the ASEAN in subsequent years making the current membership to ten countries.

India-ASEAN Relations: A Backgrounder

  • Look-East Policy in 1992 gave an upthrust to India -ASEAN relation and helped India in capitalizing its historical, cultural and civilizational linkages with the region.
  • India entered into a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in goods with the region in 2003 which has facilitated the bilateral trade which now stands at approximately USD 76 Billion.
  • Further, the launch of Act East Policy in 2014 has added a new vigour to India-ASEAN relations.

Five-key focus areas for India and ASEAN

(1) Connectivity

  • Physical connectivity remains a constraint in India-ASEAN trade relations.
  • However, infrastructure projects like Trilateral Highway connecting India’s Northeast to Thailand, the Data Deep-sea Port in Myanmar, and the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project have the potential to overcome the infrastructure bottleneck.  

(2) Maritime Security

  • The maritime space in today’s world plays a key role not only in economic development but also in security and connectivity.
  • Piracy, disputes over resources, territorial claims, terrorism, China’s increasing assertiveness, and a fractured governance system are creating instability in the Indo-Pacific region.

(3) Blue Economy

  • Given India’s vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), there is huge potential in this sector that remains to be realized.
  • India should deepen its engagement with ASEAN on this front through developing PPP models for fisheries sectors, knowledge sharing and joint efforts to conserve and manage coastal and marine resource.

(4) Strategic Relations

  • India and ASEAN forged a strategic partnership in 2012.
  • The further elevation of ties is focused on some specific areas – maritime security, joint implementation of projects in the Indo-Pacific, cybersecurity and inter-operability of digital financial systems.

(5) Other

  • India and ASEAN focus on greater knowledge sharing and developing best practices for fostering inclusive growth.
  • Policies governing cyberspace and cyber securities are in their nascent stage, in such scenario both India and ASEAN should seek to be a decisive voice in norm-setting, and in cultivating inter-regional cooperation for addressing cyber insecurity.

Issues in ties

  • Trade imbalances: In bilateral trade, there is an imbalance as the majority of ASEAN countries have strong manufacturing bases that rely on export while Indian export remains feeble.
  • Nature of engagement: India still engages more with ASEAN countries on a bilateral basis rather than on a multilateral basis.
  • Limited financial outreach: India’s has a limited capacity to provide development assistance and other financial relation.
  • Chinese presence:  ASEAN’s inclination to harness India for regional stability remains limited because of the presence of other regional powers like China.
  • No strategic vision: ASEAN and India are yet to fully converge on a joint vision for the maritime domains of Asia and the world at large.

Why does ASEAN hold immense significance for India?

  • Convergence on Indo-Pacific: Engagement with ASEAN has been, and will remain, a critical element of India’s ‘Act East’ policy and ‘Indo-Pacific’ initiative.
  • Security convergence: India needs a close diplomatic relationship with ASEAN nations both for economic and security reasons.
  • Improving presence: Connectivity with the ASEAN nations can allow India to improve its presence in the region.
  • Connectivity with NE: These connectivity projects keep Northeast India at the centre, ensuring the economic growth of the northeastern states.
  • Countering China: Improved trade ties with the ASEAN nations would mean a counter to China’s presence in the region and economic growth and development for India.
  • Rule-based order in the region: ASEAN occupies a centralised position in the rules-based security architecture in the Indo-Pacific. Rogue neighbourhood is a liability of healthy growth.

Inherent issues with ASEAN

  • Inequality matrix: Gap between rich and poor ASEAN member states remains very large and they have a mixed record on income inequality. While Singapore boasts the highest GDP per capita—nearly $53,000 (2016), Cambodia’s per capita GDP is the lowest at less than $1,300.
  • Development disparity: Many regional initiatives are not able to be incorporated into national plans, as the less developed countries faced resource constraints to implement the regional commitments.
  • Mixed nature of polity: The members’ political systems are equally mixed with democracies, communist, and authoritarian states.
  • Contention with China: Every ASEAN member is exposed to the manipulations by China over the South China Sea.
  • Lack of consensus: ASEAN has been divided over major issues of human rights. For example, crackdowns in Myanmar against the Rohingyas. The emphasis on consensus sometimes becomes a chief drawback.

Way forward

  • India has cultivated strong bonds of historical and contemporary significance with the ASEAN.
  • This relation can offer the region a natural recourse to peace, unlike the many conflicts that the ASEAN countries are involved in with China.
  • There are opportunities for ASEAN and India to build long term partnership by sharing medical technologies and traditional medicine knowledge.
  • Three potential areas for ASEAN-India partnership are Health security, digital economy and green sustainable development. India and ASEAN can work together to address the digital gap by solution and expertise sharing.
  • Further, some emerging areas of cooperation could be cryptocurrency, making use of social media as a medium of change and exchange for digital payments, lucid involvement of MSMEs in financial digitalization, and participation in global value chains.

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