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January 22, 2018
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ASEAN at Core of India’s ‘Act East’ Policy

By Nilova Roy Chaudhury Published: January 2018
 

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New Delhi. As India and the 10-nation ASEAN bloc commemorate 25 years of their dialogue partnership with a summit meeting in New Delhi that all the leaders will attend, India is laying out the crimson carpet to ensure that the first ever Republic Day celebrations to have all 10 ASEAN leaders as Chief Guests, jointly, is a truly memorable event.

An interesting nugget that Indonesia’s Ambassador to India Sidharto R.Suryodipuro reminded India Strategic. was that the first Chief Guest for India’s Republic Day celebrations, in 1950, was President Soekarno of Indonesia. Today, Indonesia is the largest member of ASEAN.

Current Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who will be the third leader from his country to grace India’s Republic Day celebrations, is among the 10 heads of state and government who will be in India for the summit.

“Our participation in the India-ASEAN commemorative summit would be to show our commitment to ASEAN-India relationship,” said Ambassador Suryodipuro. “This will underline the importance of ASEAN’s centrality as well. Prime Minister Modi has expressed support for the three pillars of ASEAN community – political, security and economy as well as socio-cultural aspect,” he told India Strategic.

For India, the centrality of ASEAN and Southeast Asia is essential for peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region. Its engagement with the 10-nation bloc is at the core of New Delhi’s strategic perspective for the region and its ‘Act East’ policy.

“For India, ASEAN leadership and centrality is essential for peace and prosperity for the rapidly changing Indo-Pacific region,” External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said in her inaugural address at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, a gathering of the Indian diaspora from the region, in Singapore.

“ASEAN has reached the golden milestone of 50 years,” she said. The bloc was formed when “southeast Asia was a global faultline, a theatre of a brutal war, and a region of uncertain nations,” but has now “unified 10 countries to become an economic hub and an anchor of broader regional integration and cooperation”.

India places ASEAN at the heart of its ‘Act East Policy’ and centre of the dream of an Asian century. India was making efforts on all fronts to enhance physical and digital connectivity with ASEAN, said Swaraj earlier. “ASEAN and India are natural partners that share geographical, historical and civilizational ties.”

The strength of India’s engagement with the ASEAN region lies in the clarity of the vision both sides share, the minister said: “We believe that when all nations adhere to international rules and norms, when we conduct relations on the basis of sovereign equality and mutual respect, our nations feel secure and our economies prosper.”
Given China’s aggressive posturing in the South China Sea and growing influence in the Indian Ocean region, Ms Swaraj’s remarks were cautionary.
India and ASEAN have a future full of possibilities and also of enormous responsibilities “as much as this creates synergies for us, from democracy to the dynamism of our economies, from proximity to the talent of our people”, she said.

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External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj interacts with Indian Diaspora during ASEAN-India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas celebrations in Singapore, January 7

With New Delhi enhancing its engagements under its Act East Policy, India has called for the waters of the Indo-Pacific region to be better connected and free of traditional and non-traditional threats.

“The Indo Pacific region is increasingly seen as a connectivity pathway – much of the world’s trade passes through these oceans,” the external affairs minister said at the Fifth Round Table of ASEAN – India Network of Think Tanks.

“These waters must not only get better connected, but remain free from traditional and non-traditional threats, that impede free movement of people, goods and ideas,” she stated.

In a clear reference to China she said, “Respect for international law, notably UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), in ensuring this is, therefore imperative.”

India and the ASEAN countries are maritime nations, Swaraj said and, “as a mature and responsible nation, one of India’s foreign policy interests, is to evolve a regional architecture based on the twin principles of shared security, and shared prosperity.”

Both India and ASEAN share a common vision for global commerce and the maritime domain, Ms Swaraj said, and New Delhi looks forward to working closely with the regional bloc in a range of activities like developing a blue economy, coastal surveillance, building off-shore patrolling capabilities, hydrographic services, and information sharing for increased maritime domain awareness.

The focus areas of cooperation between ASEAN member states and India for the future can be described in terms of 3Cs – commerce, connectivity and culture, Preeti Saran, Secretary (East) in the MEA said.

At the request of ASEAN member states, India has been raising its role and profile as an emerging security provider in the Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region, she said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government understands that any security partnership can only be strengthened by close economic ties, another area on which the external affairs minister laid emphasis. Deeper economic integration with ASEAN was a crucial aspect of India’s Act East Policy. “ASEAN is India’s fourth largest trading partner, accounting for 10.8 per cent of India’s total trade,” she said. “India is ASEAN’s seventh largest trading partner. Trade is back on track and registered an 8 per cent increase in 2016-17, as compared to the previous year.”

There have been continuous efforts to promote dialogue among ASEAN and Indian business and trade associations, to further enhance bilateral trade and investment.

“The establishment of a Project Development Fund will encourage Indian companies to develop manufacturing hubs in (the less developed) CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam) countries,” Ms Swaraj said. “Our offer of a $1 billion line of credit is another important initiative to enhance physical and digital connectivity.”

Sukarno First Chief Guest 1950
The first Chief Guest for India’s Republic Day celebrations, in 1950, was President Soekarno of Indonesia

Ms Swaraj sought new ideas for a greater integration of the ASEAN Economic Community with India to identify collaborative opportunities in investment, trade and services. She also called for greater collaboration among educational institutions saying that would “contribute towards investing in the future of our relationship, especially where it involves the youth of our countries”.

Earlier Prime Minister Modi, who visited Manila in November on a three-day visit to the Philippines, to attend the India-ASEAN and the East Asia summits, became the first prime minister from India to the Philippines in 36 years, since the visit of Indira Gandhi in 1981.
Mr Modi then participated in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Leaders’ Meeting and ASEAN Business and Investment Summit.

The business meetings were held to boost New Delhi’s close cooperation to further enhance trade ties with ASEAN member states that constitutes a significant part of India’s overall trade.

The ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. India simultaneously has growing economic, political and cultural relations with each member state, while “growing connectivity has reinforced proximity” with the entire bloc.

The leaders attending the commemorative summit are, apart from Indonesian President Widodo, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Brunei President Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Thailand PM Prayut Chan-o-Cha, Lao President Bounnhang Vorachith, Malaysian PM Najib Razak, Vietnamese PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong and Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.

The ASEAN-India Dialogue Partnership was established in 1992 and elevated to a strategic partnership in 2012, on its 20th anniversary. There have been 15 years of summit level interaction between India and ASEAN and the relationship was elevated to the strategic partnership five years ago.

The commemorative summit will add further momentum and additional layers to the growing policy engagement and overlap between India and the ASEAN.

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