Delhi Dialogue 9: Invigorating ties with ASEAN

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Delhi Dialogue 9: Invigorating ties with ASEAN

The GST will pave the way for new opportunities of trade and investment into India not only from ASEAN states but also from others, says Rajaram Panda

Ever since India launched its Look East Policy in the early 1990s, successive Governments have only given a stronger spine to this foreign policy paradigm. The Narendra Modi Government has demonstrated further dynamism by rechristening this as the Act East Policy, which literally means that India doesn’t just look to the East symbolically but executes specific projects in all domains of engagements — cultural, economic and strategic. 

The Delhi Dialogue held every year since 2009 had its ninth edition in New Delhi on July 4-5, 2017, which assumes significance. It is a premier annual Track-1.5 event to discuss politico-security, economic and socio-cultural engagement between the ASEAN and India. It was but appropriate that in her address in the ministerial session, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj reiterated India’s positive contribution to the events happening in the Asia-Pacific region. She observed: “We place the ASEAN at the heart of our Act East Policy and centre of our dream of an Asian century. The ASEAN and India are natural partners that share geographical, historical, and civilisational ties.” She invited companies from the ASEAN countries to invest in numerous sectors in India.

The ASEAN is a regional grouping comprising 10 members: Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, and Brunei. India has identified the ASEAN as a major thrust area to enhance physical and digital connectivity. Swaraj emphasised India’s future focus areas of cooperation with the ASEAN member states in terms of 3Cs — commerce, connectivity and culture.

Today, India is one of the fastest growing major economies in the world and the series of reforms that the Government has been carrying out shall help improve business environment in the country. The latest reform is the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which shall help improve the business environment in India and attract the ASEAN states to do business with us. In fact, the GST is the biggest tax reform since Independence and will contribute immensely in opening new business opportunities for trade and investment into India not only from the ASEAN states but also from others.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the organisation’s founding and also marks 25 years of India-ASEAN relationship. It was appropriate, therefore, that the theme of the Delhi Dialogue IX was ‘ASEAN-India relations: Charting the course for the next 25 years’. India’s engagement with the ASEAN started soon after it launched its economic liberalisation in 1991. In 1996, India joined the ASEAN as a full dialogue partner. Subsequent years saw intensification of engagement of India when it joined the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM+), Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (FAMF) and other platforms. India is equally active in its participation in other initiatives, such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC).

From the ASEAN side, there is much expectation that India should deepen its ties with the organisation’s member states. It wants India to accord greater priority to the region and therefore it could be a win-win situation for both if ties are deepened. At the launch of a book co-authored with Jeffery Sng, The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace, Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, expressed concern that India is “underestimating” the value of the ASEAN and should give priority to the regional grouping as it could provide a “strategic balance” amidst growing geopolitical rivalry between the US and China. He observed that if India and Southeast Asia re-establish the ancient cultural links, it will provide added meaning to the well-known phrase “culture is destiny”.

The rich shared cultural assets between India and the region have not been fully exploited. India and the Southeast Asian region have 3,000-year-old civilisational links when Indian cultural influences penetrated both through land and maritime routes seen in the form of the remnants in Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobudur in Java or Cham city in Vietnam. In the contemporary times, in 1983, the Arjuna Wijaya statue was installed in Central Jakarta. During current times, Bollywood productions have enjoyed extraordinary success in many Southeast Asian countries and television shows, such as the Mahabharata, was dubbed into Indonesian language and broadcast in March 2014.

However, there have been interruptions in the journey. For example, when India drifted towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the ASEAN states pursued a pro-American stance and this created hurdle in consolidating the past bond. India’s joining the ASEAN as a dialogue partner in December 1995 was also not without problem. Also, Indonesia and Malaysia raised the issue of Pakistan to be treated on par in view of their Islamic solidarity. There were differences of opinion among the organisation’s members when the issue of admitting both India and Pakistan at the same time was raised. They feared that India-Pakistan differences could undermine and even disrupt the ASEAN’s unity. The good thing was that India was seen as a potential candidate capable of providing the ASEAN with a geopolitical buffer when needed.

Here, the role of the ASEAN-India Eminent Persons Group (EPG), established in 2010, could play a catalytic role in pushing both to achieve their defined goals. The EPG has put a target of $200 billion India-ASEAN bilateral trade by 2022, scaling up from $76 billion in 2015-16. For this, putting the mutually beneficial business visa regime can be a good step to accelerate the process. India-ASEAN relations have already been elevated to a strategic partnership and this augurs well. 

There also exist some hidden strengths behind this India-ASEAN bonhomie. India and ASEAN put together account for almost one-third of the world’s population (some 1.85 billion people) and a combined GDP of approximately $3.8 trillion. The economies of both put together make them the third largest economy in the world, which is why it is only rational for both to work together in areas of counter-terrorism and anti-insurgency operations, trade and investment, connectivity, maritime security and upholding the global norms of trade and rules of law. Both being a part of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), it is the right time to focus on areas such as small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) to boost economic cooperation. Vietnam and the Philippines could be the potential states to focus on the SMEs.

Physical connectivity, as emphasised by Swaraj, is important in the light of work being done on the India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) Trilateral Highway and Kaladan Multimodal Transit and Transport Project. Myanmar has some issues over the IMT, but those can be resolved through dialogue as both realise the long-term significance of the project.

Both India and the ASEAN also share common viewpoints on global issues, such as adherence to the international laws and regulations to maintain peace, prosperity, and stability in the oceans. The concern of peace being disturbed in the South China Sea because of China’s assertiveness demands greater coordination between India and the ASEAN. Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia have competing claims on some oceanic space of the South China Sea that falls within their exclusive economic zones, while China claims the area in its entirety. The South China Sea remains a potential flashpoint and all stakeholders need to work together so that a conflict does not erupt. India, too, has economic interests as its ONGC is engaged in oil exploration activities in areas claimed by Vietnam and indirectly a party to it and has obligation to defend if its interests are affected. Being an aspirant to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council, India needs the ASEAN support.

The icing on the cake in the India-ASEAN bonhomie was when India invited heads of all 10 ASEAN nations for the Republic Day celebration in 2018. This shall perhaps be the most significant exposition of its Act East Policy. It will also be the first time that so many leaders will be chief guests at the parade which showcases India’s military might. In seeking such a dynamic and result-oriented approach, India sees the ASEAN as the central pillar of Act East and by including Japan and South Korea in the ambit of this, the narrative of India’s foreign policy dynamism covers the wider Indo-Pacific region.

It is thus appropriate that the 25 years of dialogue partnership, 15 years of summit-level interaction, and five years of strategic partnership are being celebrated through a wide range of activities, including a commemorative summit on the theme ‘Shared Values, Common Destiny’, coinciding with 50 years of ASEAN’s term. As an aspirational but not a threatening power, India need not feel shy to respond and meet the expectations of the ASEAN states to play a larger role in the interest of maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.   

Professor (Dr) Panda is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India. rajaram.panda@gmail.com

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