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C3S-NMF One-Day International Conference on India ASEAN: KeyNote Address; Ambassador Anil Wadhwa

One-Day International Conference on INDIA – ASEAN CONNECT: SHARED VALUES & COMMON DESTINY held on January 20, 2023 at the Raintree Hotel was organised by Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S) and National Maritime Foundation TN Chapter (NMF).


The Keynote Address delivered by Ambassador Anil Wadhwa IFS (Retd.), Former Secretary (East) Ministry of External Affairs, Govt. of India is attached for your reading pleasure.


India’s “Look East Policy was introduced in the 1990s and was transformed in 2015 to an “Act East Policy’, India’s ‘Act East’ policy is now firmly focused on stronger commercial links with the ASEAN and other Indo-Pacific countries and to create opportunities for the connectivity and development of the Indian Northeastern states. The year 2022 marked the 30th anniversary of dialogue relations between ASEAN and India and was celebrated as the ASEAN – India ‘friendship year”. On June 15, 2022, India hosted the Special ASEAN- India Foreign Minister’s meeting to mark the 30th anniversary of its dialogue relations and the 10th anniversary of its Strategic partnership with ASEAN. ASEAN is a vital component of the regional and global multilateral order and India supports ASEAN’s central position in the developing Indo- Pacific region. India’s recognition of the centrality of the ASEAN is in alignment with its vision of the “Indo-Pacific”. India does not view the Indo-Pacific as a strategy or a club of limited members but as an inclusive, natural region ranging from the shores of Africa to that of the Americas. Prime Minister Modi, speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in 2018 had stated that the Indo – Pacific should be “free, open and inclusive”, grounded in “rules and norms” based on the consent of all, not on the power of a few’, and characterized by respect for international law, including the issue of freedom of navigation, and overflight. On this occasion, PM Modi has also pointed out that it was ASEAN which had laid the foundation of the Indo-Pacific region, and key ASEAN initiatives embrace its geography by including India. Therefore, rather than being divisive or dismissive, India’s vision for the Indo – Pacific further reassures and reinforces the ASEAN. Over the past few decades India has made important progress in its relationship with the ASEAN and its related frameworks. India was a dialogue partner in 1996, became a Summit level partner in 2002, a Strategic Partner in 2012 and has since reached the level of a Comprehensive Strategic partner at the 30th India ASEAN Commemorative Summit in November 2022. Today, India is engaged in at least 30 high level dialogues at the ministerial level in diversified fields with ASEAN. India has also been an active participant in the East Asia Summit, and its related security and economic groupings like ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) and ADMM+ (ASEAN Defense Ministers Plus), which have many overlaps in membership. India’s relationship with ASEAN encompasses many aspects, including the political, security, economic, cultural and people to people dimensions.


This relationship dates back to ancient times, when India has a significant influence on the cultures of South East Asia, particularly through the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism. In ASEAN countries like Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, or Myanmar today, India’s influence is visible in the art, culture and civilization. Indian religion, political thought, literature, mythology, and arts, were absorbed deeply into local cultures due to the interaction with Indians who settled in South East Asia. Buddhism travelled to South East Asia from India in the 3rd century BCE. India has had a significant influence on the cuisine of South East Asia, in the traditional names which are based in Sanskrit in countries like Indonesia and Thailand. Indian traditional medicine has a lot of similarity with South East Asia.


Today, India’s relationship with ASEAN is going in the direction of economic integration, market access, investment and trade. The reason why India needs deeper economic integration with ASEAN and needs to engage it actively, is because it consists of 1.85 billion people, and has a combined GDP of $ 3.8 trillion. The ASEAN India Trade in goods Agreement, the ASEAN India Trade in Services agreement and the ASEAN India Investment Agreement have all entered into force and have also been ratified by all parties. Bilateral trade has risen, reaching US$ 98.39 billion in 2021-22 even though the pace could have been faster. This area requires much more attention, and the creation of new and resilient supply chains between India and ASEAN could focus on digital trade which will bring down the costs. This needs to be bolstered by a review of the ASEAN India Agreement on Trade if India has to benefit equally from the Agreement. A revamped India ASEAN Free trade Agreement will compensate to some extent for India not being part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (RCEP). The Indo Pacific Economic Framework, launched by the United States in May 2022, which includes India and seven ASEAN countries, will also help in taking the economic agenda between India and ASEAN forward. ASEAN has invested US$117.88 billion between April 2000 to February 2022 into India, and India has invested US$55.5 billion in ASEAN between April 2019 till March 2022. Investment flows, however, are predominantly to and from Singapore, and there is a need for diversification and expansion of investments with a host of other ASEAN countries.


Connectivity is a key aspect of improving the economic relationship with ASEAN – through land, sea, and air. India and ASEAN will both benefit if the construction of the trilateral highway which will connect India, Myanmar and Thailand, and will later expand into Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam is speeded up and completed in the near future. Currently, it is bogged down due to the political, financial and governance constraints in Myanmar. The Kaladan multi modal transport project, will link Kolkata to Sittwe port in Myanmar, extending into Mizoram by the river and land route. This project, again, has been stuck for a while due to the political situation in Myanmar.


A $ 1 billion credit line was announced by India in 2015 to enhance digital and infrastructure connectivity with ASEAN. The utilization has been less than satisfactory and the reasons for this must be analysed and resolved. $77 million have also been committed towards developing manufacturing hubs in the CML (Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos) countries. The soft infrastructure required for the successful opening of the trilateral highway, including a motor vehicles and licensing agreement, customs checkpoints and documentation, as well as economic hubs along the highway - must be in place when the trilateral highway opens. This is essential because the North East itself must be able to export its own produce and benefit economically rather than becoming just an importer of cheap goods. Most urgently, last mile connectivity to border areas and to sea ports and development in the North East itself is important, so that India can hope for balanced trade and utilize the full potential of its North Eastern states.


India has constantly striven to build up the capacity of ASEAN to the best of its ability. Joint activities with ASEAN are identified either as part of a 5 year “Plan of Action” or through the “Work Plans” of cooperation generated during interactions with ASEAN “sectoral bodies” or institutions. India is also looking to partner ASEAN in enhancing blue economy cooperation, -investing in development of desalinization technologies, harvesting the biodiversity, and searching and excavating marine minerals in the seas. It is setting up coastal surveillance networks and constantly enhancing the capacity for shared Maritime Domain Awareness with its partners. There has been a concentration on defense arrangements at a bilateral level, strengthening defense ties with countries like Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand. India carries out maritime exercises with countries like Singapore and Indonesia, and the Indian navy conducts the Milan exercise with navies of the Indian ocean region at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India and Singapore already have an agreement for the mutual logistics pact which was signed a few years ago and helps in Indian navy’s operational turnaround. The first ever ASEAN -India maritime exercise is schedule to take place in the first quarter of 2023, where the focus is expected to be on interoperability and exchange of best practices amongst all the navies.


Besides the $50million ASEAN-India Cooperation Fund (later augmented in 2016 by another US$50 million), India has set up a $1 million Green Fund (later augmented to $5 million) which helps in undertaking cooperative projects in climate impact mitigation. In 2016, the corpus of the Fund meant for enhancing Science and technology with ASEAN was also enhanced by India from $1 million to US$ 5 million. Two major space projects with ASEAN for tracking, data and reception/data processing stations are in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam, and in Biak, Indonesia. India is working to enhance cooperation with ASEAN in digitization – especially the financial structure and e governance as well as Cyber security. India is ideally placed to use its niche area of IT to power customs and risk management. India and its partners like Japan, Australia or US who are part of the “Quad” could partner other governments or the private sector to mitigate risk and shorten lead times in the region. The Quad, therefore, must be seen as a means of delivery for global good, not as an exclusive club, and must work to encompass the development agenda of the ASEAN countries.


India has been imparting training in English language, IT, law enforcement and capital markets skills to personnel in countries like Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. Scholarships have been offered in Nalanda university, and training of civil servants in disaster risk management and drought management, as well as exchange of parliamentarians has been carried out. There has been the establishment of a network of think tanks, and ASEAN India eminent persons lecture series. India has also proposed the Indo Pacific Oceans initiative (IPOI) at the East Asia Summit. The objective of the Indo Pacific Oceans initiative is to strengthen maritime boundaries, and to this end partnerships based on principles of free trade and sustainable use of maritime resources have been proposed. Such partnerships have three main goals in the Indian Ocean region –wealth creation, welfare promotion, and cooperative win-win strategies. The Initiative draws upon regional architecture and mechanisms to focus on seven pillars of maritime security, maritime ecology, maritime resources, capacity building and resource sharing, disaster risk reduction and management, science, technology and academic cooperation, as well as trade connectivity and maritime transport. The elevation of ties should ensure greater coordination between India’s Indo- Pacific Ocean’s Initiative (IPOI) and ASEAN’s outlook on Indo- Pacific (AOIP). The ASEAN outlook on the Indo pacific is aimed at promoting an enabling environment for peace, stability, and prosperity in the region in addressing common challenges, upholding the rules based regional architecture, and promoting closer economic cooperation, thus strengthening confidence and trust. It also aims at implementing existing and exploring other ASEAN priority areas of cooperation, including maritime cooperation, connectivity, the sustainable development goals, and economic and other possible newer areas of cooperation.


Despite all that has happened over the years, one gets the feeling of stagnation in the relationship. So, what more can India do to reinvigorate its ties with the ASEAN? India’s involvement and the idea of developing port infrastructure in Sabang is significant and could be a game changer but needs quicker follow up. Sea links are also vital between the eastern sea board of India including ports of Ennore and Chennai to CML countries and there is need for improving transshipment links with partners like Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. Experimental routes have been tried out and have turned out to be promising. These need to be scaled up. There is a proposal to link Dawei port in Myanmar, being developed with Japan and Thailand to Chennai port in India. However, Japan, Thailand and Myanmar all need to come together with India with finance and ideas in order that this proposal fructifies and succeeds. India and ASEAN also need to look at shipping joint ventures, and related concessions through an Agreement on maritime transport. While flight connections from tier 1 and tier 2 cities in India are well established with Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and now Indonesia, the other countries either lack direct links or have inadequate linkages with India. This is an impediment to tourism, as well as trade and investments. India and ASEAN, therefore, need to work towards an ASEAN India comprehensive air services agreement which will benefit trade, investments and tourism.


Some of new areas of collaboration between India and ASEAN are Green energy transition including solar energy, wind energy, and green ammonia; power grid connections with South East Asia; the new age Fintech and related resources, sharing of Indian digital technologies like UPI; and cooperation in health care and vaccines as well as digital monitoring and mapping of the pandemic. Most importantly, India needs to present itself as a viable alternative to other partners in the ASEAN economic and strategic landscape. The Comprehensive Strategic partnership with ASEAN would enhance cooperation in areas like energy, health, investment in “Make in India” programmes, technology, and climate change mitigation. Collaboration in areas such as start-ups, and innovation, empowerment of youth and women and the development of micro, small and medium enterprises will be an important driver in moving India – ASEAN relations to a higher pedestal. All this requires a much higher allocation of manpower in the ASEAN division of the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi and at the Indian mission to the ASEAN in Jakarta, adequate follow up of projects with the ASEAN Secretariat and with individual ASEAN countries, and a focus on completing the connectivity projects with ASEAN. India will also need to make continuous efforts to develop better defense, cultural, and socio- economic ties, and continue to strengthen interdependencies with countries of the ASEAN.


(Anil Wadhwa was Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs between 2014-16. He has served as India’s Ambassador to Italy, Thailand, Oman, and Poland. Currently, he is a Distinguished Fellow with the New Delhi based Vivekananda International Foundation. )

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