The year is a momentous one for India-Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) relations, marking the 25th anniversary of a rapidly expanding collaboration, the 15th year of dialogue partnership and the fifth anniversary of an immensely critical strategic cooperation. While leaders of 10 Asean member states jointly attended a commemorative summit in New Delhi and India’s Republic Day celebrations as chief guests last month, signifying New Delhi’s elevated status in east Asia, India’s relevance in creating an inclusive regional architecture to evolve an unique destiny for a quarter of the world’s population and usher enduring peace and stability in the strategically crucial Indo-Pacific was further re-emphasised by the Asean leadership’s call for proactive Indian role in the region. Moreover, for India — boasting productive engagement with south-east Asia, stretching back more than two millennia — sharing a strong bond with Asean can open up a plethora of opportunities in the Far East and beyond. As former Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar put it very eloquently, while delivering a speech to mark the silver jubilee of India-Singapore Partnership, burgeoning ties and expanding cooperation with Asean actually opened up to India the world beyond south-east Asia, while profoundly reshaping the country’s geopolitical outlook toward east Asia.
The post-Cold War world order created a new economic imperative that made New Delhi to boost her engagement with south-east Asia. A series of policy initiatives since 1992 resulted in a consolidation of India’s age-old ties with the region, achieved through benign politico-diplomatic engagements over the years.
Furthermore, some other factors like the rise of China and the competing forces of globalisation in an altered geopolitical situation, Asean’s handling of the Asian financial crisis and rapid proliferation of the hydra-headed monster of terrorism across the globe swayed India’s perception toward the region accordingly.
While the India-Asean relationship has thrived with passage of time — the existence of thirty dialogue mechanisms, including an annual summit and seven ministerial dialogues bears testimony to this fact — New Delhi still needs to walk miles to meet the huge expectations of its south-east Asian partners.
Gurjit Singh, India’s former Ambassador to Indonesia and the Asean, agrees that much more can be done to address the existing asymmetries in an expanding engagement. Pushpanathan Sundram, former Asean deputy secretary-general, echoes the eminent Indian diplomat’s contention, lamenting the unrealised potential, despite Asean and India having demographic dividend on their side.
Today, Asean may be India’s fourth largest trading partner, accounting for more than a tenth of her total trade, and businesses from south-east Asia may occupy a prominent position in the Indian economy across diverse sectors, but impediments continue to stand in the way of a hassle-free transformative partnership.
Singh lists some obstacles, including trade negotiations hitting bottlenecks over providing India market access to services as a quid-pro-quo for opening up her domestic market liberally for Asean goods, apart from the unequal distribution of gross Indian investments in the region due to a glaring imbalance in economic and trade ties with some Asean member states, compared to others.
Sundram therefore advocates investing more in the relationship and building connectivity — be it strategic, economic or people-centric. Two key projects that Sundram feels could provide the engine for transformation are the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), projected to cover approximately 40 per cent of the world’s population and trade and 33 per cent of global GDP, and the Asean-India Air Transport Agreement, which will facilitate trade, investment and tourism among others.
Sundram also advises India to focus on digital connectivity — an area of strength that is valued highly by Asean member states, and wants an enhancement in functional cooperation in sectors such as education, SMEs, agriculture, tourism, environment and IT. Singh on his part believes that a progressively and strategically stressed south-east Asia requires greater attention and assertive India-Asean collaboration on multiple fronts.
The road ahead
Asia-Pacific being one of the most dynamic regions on earth, and critical to shaping and realising the Asian Century, calls for a favourable balance of power to maintain geostrategic stability. It is in this context that New Delhi’s contribution remains pivotal to successfully confronting common challenges.
While Ambassador Singh espouses strategic coordination in vital areas, including capacity building, health, human resources and services, Sundram contends India-Asean collaboration in multilateral platforms like the Asean Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and the United Nations will help build trust and contribute to regional peace. For a fruitful partnership to fructify on the economic front, Sundram says, the two sides must look into non-tariff barriers, once tariff slides, and improve market access.
And finally, even though Asean leadership wants India to ramp-up investments in infrastructure, the Indian industry seems to be lethargic in grasping this opportunity despite the existence of Indian government funded credit facility for connectivity development in south-east Asia. According to Alwyn Didar Singh, principal adviser to the President of Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, there is always a difference between a development grant and a public-private-partnership loan.
“For [a] PPP loan a well tried out and trusted business model is an imperative. One can only speculate that this has not yet happened for Indian business to fully understand the business model in Asean,” says Singh. His remedy to this problem of underutilised line of credit in a region where the Chinese have grasped infrastructure investment opportunities aggressively is — “share the information and present the business model and opportunity to Indian business and let them take the call, just as we do for infra projects in India.”
Seema Sengupta is a Calcutta-based journalist and columnist