ASEAN-India: Shared values, common destiny
On 26th January, 1.25 billion Indians had the honour to host 10 esteemed guests — leaders of ASEAN nations — at India’s Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi. On Thursday, I had the privilege to host the ASEAN leaders for the Commemorative Summit to mark 25 years of ASEAN-India Partnership. Their presence with us is an unprecedented gesture of goodwill from ASEAN nations. Responding to this, on a winter morning, India has come out to greet them in a warm embrace of friendship.
This is no ordinary event. It is a historic milestone in a remarkable journey that has brought India and ASEAN in a deepening partnership of great promise for their 1.9 billion people, about one-fourth of human kind.
The India-ASEAN partnership may be just 25 years old. But, India’s ties with Southeast Asia stretch back more than two millennia. Forged in peace and friendship, religion and culture, art and commerce, language and literature, these enduring links are now present in every facet of the magnificent diversity of India and Southeast Asia, providing a unique envelope of comfort and familiarity between our people.
More than two decades ago, India opened itself to the world with tectonic changes. And, with instincts honed over centuries, it turned naturally to the East. Thus began a new journey of India’s reintegration with the East. For India, most of our major partners and markets — from ASEAN and East Asia to North America — lie to the East. And, Southeast Asia and ASEAN, our neighbours by land and sea, have been the springboard of our Look East and, for the last three years, the Act East Policy.
Along the way, from dialogue partners, ASEAN and India have become strategic partners. We advance our broad-based partnership through 30 mechanisms. With each ASEAN member, we have growing diplomatic, economic and security partnership. We work together to keep our seas safe and secure. Our trade and investment flows have multiplied several times. ASEAN is India’s fourth largest trading partner; India is ASEAN’s seventh. Over 20 per cent of India’s outbound investments go to ASEAN. Led by Singapore, ASEAN is India’s leading source of investments. India’s free trade agreements in the region are its oldest and among the most ambitious anywhere.
Air links have expanded rapidly and we are extending highways deep into continental Southeast Asia with new urgency and priority. Growing connectivity has reinforced proximity. It has also put India among the fastest growing sources of tourism in Southeast Asia. Over a 6 million strong Indian diaspora in the region — rooted in diversity and steeped in dynamism — constitutes an extraordinary human bond between us.
Thailand has emerged as an important trading partner of India in ASEAN and is also one of the important investors in India from ASEAN. Bilateral trade between India and Thailand has more than doubled over the last decade. Relations between India and Thailand are extensively spread across many areas. We are important regional partners linking South and Southeast Asia. We cooperate closely in the ASEAN, East Asia Summit and Bimstec (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), as also in the frameworks of Mekong Ganga Cooperation, Asia Cooperation Dialogue and Indian Ocean Rim Association. Thailand Prime Minister’s state visit to India in 2016 has made a long-lasting impact on bilateral relations.
The whole of India mourned with their Thai brothers and sisters the demise of the great and popular King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The people of India also join the friendly people of Thailand in praying for the long, prosperous and peaceful reign of the new king, His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun.
The traditionally close and cordial relations have their historical roots in the common struggle for liberation from foreign rule and the national struggle for independence. Leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and President Ho Chi Minh led our peoples in the heroic struggle against colonialism. During the visit of Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to India in 2007, we signed the strategic partnership agreement. This strategic partnership has grown into a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with my visit to Vietnam in 2016.
India’s relations with Vietnam are marked by growing economic and commercial engagement. Bilateral trade between India and Vietnam has increased about 10 fold in 10 years. Defence cooperation has emerged as a significant pillar of strategic partnership between India and Vietnam. Science and technology is another important area of cooperation between India and Vietnam.
India and Myanmar share a land-border of over 1,600 kms as well as a maritime boundary. Religious and cultural traditions flowing from our deep sense of kinship and our common Buddhist heritage bind us as closely as does our shared historical past. Nothing illuminates it more gloriously than the gleaming tower of Shwedagon Pagoda. The cooperation to restore Ananda Temple in Bagan with assistance of the Archaeological Survey of India also is emblematic of this shared heritage.
During the colonial period, political bonds were forged between our leaders, who displayed a great sense of hope and unity during our common struggle for independence. Gandhiji visited Yangon several times. Bal Gangadhar Tilak was deported to Yangon for many years. The clarion call of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose for India’s Independence stirred the souls of many in Myanmar.
Our trade has more than doubled over the last decade. Our investment ties are also robust. Development cooperation has a significant role in India’s relations with Myanmar. This assistance portfolio is presently worth over $1.73 billion. India’s transparent development cooperation is in line with Myanmar’s national priorities and also builds synergy with the Master Plan of ASEAN Connectivity.
Singapore is a window to the heritage of India’s ties to the region, the progress of the present and the potential of the future. Singapore was a bridge between India and Asean. Today, it is our gateway to the East, our leading economic partner and a major global strategic partner, which resonates in our membership in several regional and global forums.
Singapore and India share a strategic partnership. Our political relations are infused with goodwill, warmth and trust. Our Defence ties are among the strongest for both.Our economic partnership covers every area of priority for our two nations. Singapore is India’s leading destination and source of investments. Thousands of Indian companies are registered in Singapore.
Sixteen Indian cities have over 240 direct flights every week to Singapore. Indians make up the third-largest group of tourists in Singapore. Singapore’s inspirational multiculturalism and respect for talent have nurtured a vibrant and dynamic Indian community that is contributing to deeper cooperation between our nations.
I had a very satisfying visit to the Philippines a little over two months ago. In addition to attending the ASEAN-India, EAS and related Summits, I had the pleasure of meeting President Duterte and we had extensive discussions on how to carry forward our warm and problem-free relationship. We are both strong in services and our growth rates are amongst the highest among major countries. Our business and trade potential holds great promise.
I laud President Duterte’s commitment to bringing about inclusive development and to fighting corruption. These are areas where both countries can work together. We are happy to share our experience with the Philippines in universal ID cards, financial inclusion, making banking accessible to all, facilitating direct transfer of benefits, and in promoting cashless transactions. Making affordable medicines available to all is another priority area for the government of the Philippines that we are ready to contribute to. From Mumbai to Marawi, terrorism knows no boundaries. We are enhancing our cooperation with the Philippines in facing this common challenge.
The contemporary relations between India and Malaysia are quite extensive and spread across many areas. Malaysia and India share strategic partnership and we cooperate in a number of multilateral and regional fora. Malaysian Prime Minister’s state visit to India in 2017 has made a long-lasting impact on the bilateral relations.
Malaysia has emerged as the third largest trading partner of India in ASEAN and is one of the important investors in India from ASEAN. Bilateral trade between India and Malaysia has increased more than two-fold in 10 years.
India and Malaysia have a bilateral Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement since 2011. This Agreement is unique in the sense that both sides have offered ASEAN Plus commitments in trade in goods and have exchanged WTO Plus offers in trade in services. The Revised Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement between the two countries, signed in May 2012, and the MoU on Customs Cooperation, signed in 2013 further facilitate our trade and investment cooperation.
Bilateral trade between India and Brunei has more than doubled over the last decade. India and Brunei share common membership of UN, NAM, Commonwealth, ARF, etc., and as developing countries with strong traditional and cultural ties, Brunei and India enjoy a fair degree of commonality in their perceptions on major international issues. The visit of the Sultan of Brunei to India in May 2008 was a landmark in India-Brunei relations. Vice-President of India visited Brunei in February 2016.
Relations between India and Lao PDR are extensively spread across many areas. India has been actively involved in power transmission and agricultural sectors in Lao PDR. Today, India and Lao PDR cooperate in a number of multilateral and regional fora.
While the trade between India and Lao PDR is still below potential, India has extended Duty Free Tariff Preference Schemes to Lao PDR, encourage exports of goods from Lao PDR to India. We also have immense opportunities in services trade that goes in building the economy of Lao PDR. Implementation of the ASEAN-India Services and Investment Agreement would help facilitate our services trade.
Separated by a mere 90 nautical miles in the Indian Ocean, India and Indonesia share a continuity of civilisational relationship that spans over two millennia. Whether it is the annual Balijatra celebrated in Odisha or the legends of Ramayana and Mahabharata, which are visible across the entire landscape of Indonesia, these unique cultural threads umbilically bind the peoples of Asia’s two largest democracies in a special neighbourly embrace.
“Unity in diversity” or Bhinneka Tunggal Ika is also a key facet of the shared societal value structures that both countries celebrate, as also the common values of democracy and rule of law. Today, as strategic partners, our cooperation spans across the entire gamut of political, economic, Defence & security, cultural and people-to-people fields. Indonesia continues to be our largest trading partner in ASEAN. Bilateral trade between India and Indonesia increased 2.5 times in the last ten years. President Joko Widodo’s State visit to India in 2016 has made a long-lasting impact on the bilateral relations.
The traditional and friendly relations between India and Cambodia are deeply rooted in civilisational ties. The magnificent structure of Angkor Wat temple is a glorious testimony and grand symbol of our ancient historical, religious and cultural links. India was proud to undertake restoration and preservation of Angkor Wat temple during the difficult period from 1986-1993.
India continues this valuable association in the ongoing restoration of Ta-Prohm temple. After the collapse of Khmer Rouge regime, India was the first country to recognise the new Government in 1981. India was also associated with the Paris Peace Accord and its finalisation in 1991. These traditional bonds of friendship have strengthened through regular exchange of high-level visits. We have expanded our cooperation in diverse fields such as institutional capacity building, human resource development, developmental and social projects, cultural exchanges, Defence cooperation, tourism and people-to- people contact.
In the ASEAN context, and on various global platforms, Cambodia is an important interlocutor and a supportive partner for India. India is committed to remain a partner in Cambodia’s economic development and looks forward to further deepen its traditional ties.
And, India and ASEAN are doing much more. Our partnership in ASEAN-led institutions like East Asia Summit, ADMM+ (the ASEAN Defence Ministerial Meeting Plus) and ARF (the ASEAN Regional Forum) are advancing peace and stability in our region. India is also an eager participant in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, seeking a comprehensive, balanced and fair agreement for all 16 participants.
The strength and resilience of partnerships come not just from arithmetic of numbers, but also from the underpinnings of the relationship. India and ASEAN nations have relations free from contests and claims. We have a common vision for the future, built on commitment to inclusion and integration, belief in sovereign equality of all nations irrespective of size, and support for free and open pathways of commerce and engagement.
The ASEAN-India partnership will continue to grow. With the gift of demography, dynamism and demand — and with rapidly maturing economies — India and ASEAN will build a strong economic partnership. Connectivity will increase and trade will expand. In an era of cooperative and competitive federalism in India, our states are also building productive cooperation with Southeast Asian nations. India’s Northeast is on a resurgent path. Links with Southeast Asia will accelerate its progress. In turn, a connected Northeast will be a bridge to ASEAN-India ties of our dreams. As Prime Minister, I have attended four annual ASEAN-India Summits and East Asia Summit. These have reinforced my conviction in ASEAN unity, centrality and leadership in shaping the region in this vision.
This is a year of milestones. India turned 70 last year. ASEAN reached the golden milestone of 50 years. We can each look to our future with optimism and to our partnership with confidence.
At 70, India exudes the spirit, enterprise and energy of its young population. As the fastest growing major economy in the world, India has become the new frontier of global opportunities and an anchor of stability of the global economy. With every passing day, it is easier and smoother to do business in India. I hope that ASEAN nations, as our neighbours and friends, will be an integral part of New India’s transformation.
We admire ASEAN’s own progress. Born when Southeast Asia was a theatre of a brutal war and a region of uncertain nations, ASEAN has united 10 countries behind a common purpose and a shared future. We have the potential to pursue higher ambitions and address the challenges of our times: from infrastructure and urbanisation to resilient agriculture and a healthy planet. We can also use the power of digital technology, innovation and connectivity to transform lives at unprecedented speed and scale.
A future of hope needs a solid bedrock of peace. This is an age of change, disruptions and shifts that comes only rarely in history. ASEAN and India have immense opportunities — indeed, enormous responsibility — to chart a steady course through the uncertainty and turbulence of our times to a stable and peaceful future for our region and the world.
Indians have always looked East to see the nurturing sunrise and the light of opportunities. Now, as before, the East, or the Indo-Pacific Region, will be indispensable to India’s future and our common destiny. The ASEAN-India partnership will play a defining role in both. And, in Delhi, ASEAN and India renewed their pledge for the journey ahead.
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