By: Darshan Gajjar, Research Analyst, GSDN
On September 07, 2023 two days prior to the historic G20 summit in New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the 20th ASEAN-India Summit and the 18th East Asia Summit, which highlights the importance of ASEAN countries in India’s foreign policy matrix.
Attending the ASEAN summit just before the important G20 summit reaffirms India’s commitment to strengthen a comprehensive strategic partnership with ASEAN in line with the principle of ASEAN centrality. Let us look into why ASEAN matters to India and how, in the last three decades, the relationship between ASEAN and India has evolved.
Genesis of ASEAN
To understand why ASEAN matters to India, we first have to look into the conditions under which ASEAN came into being along with the fundamental principles of the organisation.
Amid the geopolitical rivalries and block politics of the Cold War, August 08, 1967 the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand came together and signed what is today famously known as the ASEAN Declaration, thus giving birth to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Subsequently, in the next few decades, especially after the end of the Cold War, other countries from the region, such as Brunei (1984), Vietnam (1995), Lao PDR (1997), Myanmar (1997) and Cambodia (1999), have joined the association, further advancing integration in the region.
The fundamental principles on which ASEAN functions, and are highlighted by the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) of 1976, are i) Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another; ii) Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful manner; iii) Renunciation of the threat or use of force; iv) Effective cooperation among member states, v) Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations and vi) The right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion.
India and ASEAN: From Look East to Act East
India Southeast Asia in general and ASEAN in particular share a deep cultural and historical ties that are being supplemented by growing economic integration and the convergence of strategic interests.
In 1991, India, with the implementation of LPG (Liberalisation, Privatisation and Globalisation) reforms, opened its economy and, with it, the possibility of higher investments in various sectors. India’s foraging of economic space morphed into the operationalisation of “Look East Policy” by the then PM PV Narasimha Rao government.
The Look East Policy opened new pathways for India to take advantage of new opportunities in the various sectors of trade and investment. Due to its successful implementation, India’s trade with ASEAN has risen from US$2.4 billion in 1990 to US$23 billion in 2005.
Eventually, in November 2014, during the 12th India-ASEAN summit, PM Modi formally launched the “Act East Policy,” advancing goals enunciated in the erstwhile Look East policy, further enhancing relations with ASEAN along with BIMSTEC countries. ASEAN is a central pillar of India’s Act East policy.
As per the latest data, the India-ASEAN trade amount stands at $133 billion, with India having a trade deficit of around $43 billion. As mentioned earlier, from $2.4 billion in 1990 to $133 billion in 2022, economic trade and integration have increased drastically.
However, we have to look at these figures in comparison with China, which is by far one of the biggest trade partners of the ASEAN countries, with $975.3 billion in 2022 itself. There has to be more investment by the Indian private sector in ASEAN countries to solidify the overall supply chain vis-à-vis India.
The ASEAN-India Free Trade Area (AIFTA), which was signed in 2003 and came into effect in 2010, was further upgraded by adding the services sector, with the signing of the ASEAN-India Trade in Services Agreement, in November 2014, fostering persistent economic integration.
AIFTA eliminates tariffs for 75% of goods traded between India and ASEAN and promotes deeper cooperation in areas such as agriculture, fisheries, and forestry; services; mining and energy; science and technology; transport and infrastructure; manufacturing, etc.
Connectivity projects in the region further form one of the key pillars of India-ASEAN cooperation. The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway is on the verge of completion, and once finally operationalized, over 1,400 kilometres of highway will connect the Indian city of Moreh in Manipur to Thailand’s Mae Sot through Myanmar.
Another such project is the Kaladan Multimodal Project, which will enable India’s multimodal transit connectivity with Southeast Asia. Such connectivity projects help India reduce its dependence on crucial sea routes. Although we cannot abolish waterways, these projects will enable India to supplement maritime routes while doing trade with the Southeast Asian region.
Convergence of Strategic Interests
With the changing shift in relations between India and China, especially in post-Galwan times, it becomes extremely important for India to develop defensive and offensive capabilities against the adversary. The exasperating attempts by China to alter the status quo in the South China Sea provide an opportunity for India and ASEAN countries to collaborate to establish rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific region.
China claims an exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea around the so-called “nine-dash line” based on historical reasons. The ongoing conflicts in the South China Sea between China and several ASEAN member states are one of the major drivers for China in shaping its relations with ASEAN countries. Just like India and China, ASEAN and China’s economies are intertwined; however, due to China repeatedly violating the sovereignty of ASEAN members, ASEAN countries are looking to diversify and de-risk their economy.
Further, due to its geographical location being located at the strategic flashpoint of the Strait of Malacca, countries like Indonesia become pivotal in India’s maritime strategy.
Various military exercises, one of which was Exercise Samudra Shakti-23, illustrated the strong partnership between India and Indonesia and reaffirmed the commitment of both navies, through cooperative engagement, to promote peace and stability in the region.
Countries of ASEAN also see India as a reliable defence partner who can help them develop deterrent capabilities against potential aggressors in the Indo-Pacific. The Philippines is likely to receive the first delivery of the BrahMos cruise missile by this December, strengthening the country’s deterrence capabilities.
Further, India is likely to sell BrahMos missiles to Vietnam, bolstering defence cooperation between both countries. In the maritime domain, India has also gifted the active warship INS Kirpan to Vietnam, which will help it secure its sovereignty in the region. This becomes evident with Chinese ships often violating international norms by showing unforeseen coercion in the Indo-Pacific.
India also plays a role as a net security provider and first responder in the region through initiatives like SAGAR (Security And Growth for All in the Region), through which we ensure economic growth and security in the region are not affected widely in the face of any unforeseen natural disasters.
Present Visit and Implications
Prime Minister Modi, during his visit to Indonesia at the India-ASEAN Summit, presented a 12-point proposal to strengthen relations between India and ASEAN in areas such as digital transformation, connectivity, trade and economic engagement, calling for building a rules-based post-COVID World Order.
It further called for a collective fight against terrorism, terror financing and cyber-disinformation, in addition to calling for cooperation in disaster management and enhanced cooperation on maritime safety, security and domain awareness.
Reaffirming the principle of ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific, the PM highlighted the synergies between India’s Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative (IPOI) and ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). He also called for a review of the ASEAN-India FTA in a time-bound manner to rationalise the trade imbalance under the current agreement.
At the East Asia Summit, calling ASEAN the focal point of Quad’s vision, PM Modi emphasised Quad’s aim of ensuring a free, open, and rules-based Indo-Pacific. The Prime Minister advocated a cooperative approach to address global challenges, including terrorism, climate change, resilient supply chains, etc. He accentuated India’s steps in the area of climate change through initiatives like OSOWOG, ISA, CDRI, and Mission LiFE.
It is sine qua non for every country in the region to maintain a code of conduct by following UNCLOS, thus securing the respective country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The PM called for compliance with such treaties.
With the shifting balance of power and plausible security dilemmas, the relationship between India and ASEAN becomes very important due to their geographical proximity and, as mentioned earlier, economic interlinkages and convergence of strategic interests.
With India increasing its maritime prowess, the strategic location of ASEAN countries makes them obvious partners in the region. In addition to defence and security, cooperation in the areas of sustainable development, disaster management, and climate change will benefit the entire region as a whole.