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Full Text of Keynote Address delivered by Ambassador M. Ganapathi IFS (Retd.) at Two Days Conference

Article No. 014/2018

The following is the full text of the Keynote Address delivered by Ambassador M. Ganapathi, Former Secretary, Ministry Of External Affairs; and Member, C3S, at the  International Conference on ‘India-ASEAN towards Greater Partnership’ organized by UGC Centre for Southeast Asian and Pacific Studies, Sri Venkateswara University, Tirupati on 4-5 December 2017.

The subject of the International Conference, “India-ASEAN towards Greater Partnership” is appropriate and timely with the Indo-Pacific Region assuming a critical importance in the conduct of international relations at this moment in time. And in this construct ASEAN and India occupy an important role.

The world has changed significantly since the early 1900’s to reshape not only geography but also the contours of international relations. Many of the countries formed after the two Wars, including the Soviet Union, no longer exist. The agreements between then colonial powers did reshape the map in West Asia but the legacy of those problems continues to bedevil the region even today.  Very few colonies remain, since the onset of decolonisation, since the mid-40’s of the last Century.  The United Nations itself is an anachronism, with power and influence of some of the “victorious powers” having considerably diminished.

The course of history was determined by European powers and later the United States until the end of last Century. The map of Europe as we knew has undergone a sea change. The United States seems to be ostensibly withdrawing from many of its global political and economic commitments.  However, its financial and strategic predominance will not diminish or disappear anytime soon. Russia had slipped from a position of strength but, is rallying back under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. The rise of China has created a new parameter in the power hierarchy. The Euro-Atlantic dimension of global developments has shifted eastwards towards the Asia-Pacific and the Indo-Pacific Region.  The 21st Century belongs to the Indo-Pacific regions, stretching from Africa well into the western seaboard of the Pacific Ocean. The term Indo-Pacific is not a recent nomenclature to replace the so-called circumscribed terminology of the Asia-Pacific.  It has been in vogue for sometime. The thrust of India’s foreign policy in pursuit of its national interests has been a work in continuity in response to the various global developments.

In this matrix, where India and ASEAN and Indo-ASEAN relations fit in could be a legitimate question?

India’s exposure to South East Asia is well recorded. These are centuries old. With cross-movement of people and ideas, the influence of Indian art, culture and religion is evident in many of these countries.   Buddhism moved from India into many of the South East Asian countries.  The effect of Hinduism is seen in some of the places. The Kalingas had looked East for trade some 2000 years ago and the Chola Empire stretched from India into many of these countries. Indian leaders highlighted relations with Asia and the importance of sea lanes in the conduct of foreign and defence policies in the Constituent Assembly debates and the first Asian Relations Conference in 1947. The Bandung Conference brought the countries of the region closer together. And the development of India-ASEAN relations could bring greater progress and prosperity to some of the States in India, particularly those in the Northeast, East and the South of India.

Countries of South East Asia have earlier had some issues among themselves, some historical and some as a colonial legacy. The creation of ASEAN in August 1967, with its five important founding members, allowed them to override many of these problems and attend to their developmental goals. The end of the Cold War allowed ASEAN to further expand towards its erstwhile rivals in Indo-China. Brunei had joined in the interim and Myanmar later. While the differences among the individual members of the ASEAN-10 do exist, they have not allowed it to simmer or affect what would, for all intents and purposes, be a harmonious grouping of like-minded nations. And when Timor Leste makes the cut, ASEAN will be a Club of 11!

Today ASEAN is perhaps the most successful regional grouping of nations. The EU started 10 years ahead of ASEAN with a Core Group. BREXIT has put paid to the European dream of marching forward united into the second quarter of this Century and beyond. ASEAN at 50 will continue to march on through the ASEAN Community Vision 2025: Forging Ahead Together. The woeful state of SAARC is a matter of regret.

At their 31st Summit in Manila in November 2017, celebrating ASEAN’s 50th Anniversary under the theme “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World”, ASEAN leaders saw ASEAN’s main deliverables to include (a) A people-oriented and people-centred ASEAN; (b) Peace and stability in the region; (c) Maritime security and cooperation; (d) Inclusive, innovation-led growth; (e) ASEAN’s resiliency; and (f) ASEAN as a model of regionalism, a global player. India recognises the significance of these priority issues and will work in harmony with ASEAN towards their realisation.

India’s bilateral interaction with each of the ASEAN countries has been historical and longstanding. India’s recognition of then Government in Kampuchea in 1980 had created some difficulties.  However, with the passage of time and sober reflection on either side, on the merits of close partnership, new avenues and opportunities for cooperation became available. The Cold War of the 20th Century was behind us. The opening up of the Indian economy in 1991 was helpful. And ASEAN could have been a motivating factor in this regard.

India became a Sectoral Dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1992. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao announced India’s Look East Policy in Singapore in 1994. India became a Full Dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1996.  The partnership was raised to a Summit level in 2002 and consolidated to that of a Strategic Partner in 2012. Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally announced India’s Act East Policy during his visit to Myanmar in 2015. He envisioned India’s Act East Policy to extend from Bangladesh to the western seaboard of the United States of America.  Interestingly, the former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had asked India “not just to look east, but to engage East and act East” during a speech in Chennai in July 2011. At the recent 15th ASEAN-India Summit in Manila on November 14, Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasised that “India’s Act East Policy is shaped around ASEAN and its centrality in the regional security architecture of the Indo-Pacific region is evident”. Look East has a passive connotation while Act East indicates a pro-active approach.

In 2012, India commemorated twenty years of its Partnership with ASEAN and ten years of Annual Summits under the theme ‘ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace and Shared Prosperity’. Leaders from all ten ASEAN countries visited Delhi for the commemorative event. 2017 was of greater significance as we recall 25 years of association with ASEAN as a Dialogue Partner in what would be a “historic milestone”. Besides the political and economic partnership, we recall our long standing contribution to each other’s growth through strong people-to-people’s contacts involving customs and traditions, heritage and legacy, arts and culture, religion and philosophy, among others. ASEAN and India cherish the pluralistic, multi-religious and diverse nature of their respective societies. And the climax of the commemorative events would be the presence as Chief Guests of the Heads of States/Governments of ASEAN at India’s 69th Republic Day celebrations in 2018, a first of sorts. Current indications are that the majority of ASEAN Heads of States/Governments would attend. The theme of the 25th Anniversary Celebrations is “Shared Values, Common Destiny”.  Earlier last year, on the day of the 25th Anniversary in January 2017, warm messages were exchanged between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and ASEAN Chairperson President Rodrigo Duterte.

As a strategic partner of ASEAN, India is actively associated with various ASEAN-related defence and strategic institutions. These include the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADDM+) and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum. Our bilateral defence ties with the region and with individual ASEAN members have expanded significantly.

The general statement of principles of the 2004 document relating to ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity was incorporated into a more comprehensive Vision Statement during the 2012 ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit. The rather free flowing Plans of Action for 2005-2010 and 2010-2015 were upgraded to a more structured and detailed Plan of Action for 2016-2020. This document underlines India’s support to the ASEAN Community Vision 2025 and its three pillars of ASEAN Political Security Community, the ASEAN Economic Community and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. India supports ASEAN’s unity and centrality in the region’s security architecture.

Over these 25 years, India’s relations with ASEAN as a group and bilaterally with each of the individual ten countries have increased exponentially. There are 30 dialogue mechanisms between them today which not only include annual Summit level interactions but also Ministerial meetings covering a wide range of areas as those on External Affairs, Defence, Commerce, Telecommunications, Agriculture, Energy, Environment and Tourism.

India and ASEAN have wide-ranging cooperation in the political and security spheres. The concerns of India and ASEAN on various regional and international issues have been regularly discussed at the ARF, the ADMM plus and the ASEAN Maritime Forum. The expanded maritime forum has discussed the subject of maritime safety and security, freedom for navigation and over flight, unimpeded commerce, the exercise of self-restraint, the non-use of force and the threat to use force and the resolution of disputes through peaceful means. These issues have their own fallout on regional security and prosperity. India has also had extensive bilateral Service-to-Service exchanges with ASEAN; has conducted joint military, air and naval exercises with some of them and has been supplying advanced weapons to some countries. The recent supply of Brahmos missiles to Vietnam is a case in point. India is also involved in training ASEAN cadets and has seen ASEAN officers attending staff college courses. Another significant area of cooperation has been in the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) area.

The challenges confronting by India and ASEAN should lead to enhanced joint cooperation and exchange of information in combating international terrorism, piracy, money laundering, organised crime, drug trafficking, arms trading, people smuggling, cybercrime, clandestine proliferation of nuclear materials and missile technology, among others. The ASEAN India Joint Declaration for Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism has been of value. India has proposed to host a Conference on de-radicalisation–this is under consideration of ASEAN.

There are sub-regional multilateral forums such as the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), which have provided additional platform for engagement between India and ASEAN.

India has an annual Track 1.5 event, the Delhi Dialogue, to discuss politico-security and economic issues between ASEAN and India. Participants have found this forum useful.

Trade between India and ASEAN was a dismal $2 billion in 1992. ASEAN figures indicate that, this had risen significantly to $68 billion by 2014; slightly fallen down to $60 billion in 2015; and to around $58 billion in 2016. However, DGCI&S statistics indicate that Indo-ASEAN trade in 2016-17 was $71 billion. For the first 5 months of 2017-18, the trade figures add up to $31 billion. ASEAN is the 4th largest trading partner of India which is the 8th largest trading partner of ASEAN.  While the $70 billion target by 2012 was met, the ambitious target of $100 billion by 2015 was not achieved and the target of $200 billion by 2022 might be out of reach. The trade turnover is far below potential. New opportunities and products need to be explored by business.

Bilaterally, Indonesia is our largest trading partner, with a trade turnover of $17 billion in 2016-17. This is followed by Singapore at $16.6 billion and Malaysia at $14 billion. In his meeting with Prime Minister Modi in Manila, President Duterte sought Indian pharma investment and noted the positive support of Mahindra Jeeps to the Filipino Police.

The conclusion of the ASEAN-India Trade and Goods Agreement and the ASEAN-India Services and Investment Agreement allows for the creation of an ASEAN-India Free Trade Area. However, both sides need to monitor progress to remove whatever obstacles there may be in the smooth operationalisation of these agreements.

Investment between the two sides has been fairly satisfactory. India’s investment in ASEAN over the last 17 years has been over $40 billion, while investment from ASEAN into India over the same period has touched $70 billion.

At the recent ASEAN-India Summit in Manila in November 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi outlined the various steps taken to provide for Ease of Doing Business in India, as also the opportunities for trade and investment within India and between India and its overseas partners. With a combined population of more than 1.85 billion people in India and the ASEAN region, and a combined GDP of $4.5 trillion, opportunities are immense. Both sides have sought greater private sector involvement. The ASEAN-India Business Council has been reactivated and the ASEAN-India Business Fair and Conclave has been held. An ASEAN-India Business Summit would take place in New Delhi in January 2018.

India is a member of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The recent ASEAN Summit called for an early finalisation of the RCEP. The US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and indications of its dilution of interest in NAFTA should provide an opportunity for greater deliverables to the RCEP. At the same time, it would be in the interest of ASEAN countries to support India’s membership to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

Discussion and cooperation in the energy sector, both traditional and new and renewal energy is a matter of considerable importance to both India and ASEAN. Both upstream and downstream opportunities exist.

Cooperation in the Information and Communications Technology area has been extensive between ASEAN and India.

India-ASEAN connectivity should be an area of utmost priority. India shares a seamless boundary with the ASEAN countries through Myanmar. This should help develop India’s relations with ASEAN further and provide for the development of the North-Eastern States of India.

India is committed towards completion of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Friendship Highway and its extension to Laos and Cambodia and on to Vietnam. India is developing the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project in Myanmar.  This will link Mizoram to the Myanmar port of Sittwe as also Kolkata and Sittwe ports. The waterways component of the project has been completed. The construction of the road component is behind schedule and should be completed by 2020. India is also involved in the completion of the Rhi-Tiddim road enabling connectivity between Mizoram and Mandalay in Myanmar.An India-ASEAN Connectivity Summit would be held in Delhi 2017.

Some of the ASEAN countries, particularly Malaysia, are active in infrastructure development in India. Singapore’s participation in the Smart Cities project in India is well recognised. It will help build Amaravati, the upcoming capital city of the State of Andhra Pradesh.

India’s cultural imprint is visible in most of the ASEAN countries. ASEAN and India have agreed to preserve, protect and restore symbols and structures which represent civilisational bonds between the two sides including those in Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Borobudur and Prambanan in Indonesia, Wat Phu in Laos, Bagan in Myanmar, Sukothai in Thailand and My Son in Vietnam. Ramayana is an important thread binding India and ASEAN.

People to people contact form an important element of ASEAN-India cooperation and tourism is an important constituent in this regard. There is a greater need for encouragement and awareness for tourists from India to visit ASEAN and vice versa. The decision by the Government of India on ease of obtaining visas should help business and tourism. The setting up of the Nalanda University is an important step in highlighting the dimension of Buddhism and education in India’s cooperation with ASEAN.

The role of a strong Indian Diaspora in ASEAN in acting as a bridge and platform in developing close partnership with the countries of their adoption and in the economic development of India and in bilateral commercial and economic cooperation needs no reiteration.

I would like to mention India’s response to the Rohingya issue. India remains engaged with the Government of Myanmar on the subject. Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed this with the Myanmar leaders during his visit to that country in August 2017. The MEA Spokesperson had on September 9, 2017 noted “India remains deeply concerned about the situation in Rakhine State in Myanmar and the outflow of refugees from that region…During Prime Minister’s recent visit to Myanmar, he had urged a solution based on respect for peace, communal harmony, justice, dignity and democratic values…We would urge that the situation in Rakhine State be handled with restraint and maturity, focussing on the welfare of the civilian population alongside those of the security forces. It is imperative that violence is ended and normalcy in the State restored expeditiously”. India has commenced Operation Insaniyat in response to the humanitarian crisis and has decided to extend assistance to Bangladesh, where most of the Rohingya refugees have moved in. A total of 7,000 tonnes of relief material was delivered to help Bangladesh overcome the crisis.

There are some bilateral, regional and international issues, which could have some bearing on India’s role in the region and impact on India’s relations with ASEAN.

Developments in and out of China would be an important parameter determining the course of events and developments in the region covering the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The statements and remarks in the lead up to the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China and during the Congress itself create more uncertainties on the future direction of China’s foreign policy. As the “Core” Leader, Xi Jinping thoughts will guide China internally and in international relations. Xi seems to make haste slowly but surely indicating that China’s strategy will now shift from one of “keeping a low profile” to “strive for achievement” and “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and “restoration to its rightful great power status by 2049”. This will be “backed by a strong military”. From an economic point of view, the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has brought many countries onto the Chinese road. Questions are being asked on the proposal’s viability but in the short term are proving attractive to many. Some countries, in particular, Nepal, Sri Lanka and even Pakistan, have recently asked questions on some of the projects. At the same time, the classical Chinese pattern of using inducements, threats and force would make smaller nations succumb to Chinese pressure. This is evident in China’s relations with Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and to a certain extent, even the Philippines. The latest reports are those of Chinese connectivity projects in Myanmar.

China’s has a comprehensive engagement with ASEAN. Recent moves include the three-point proposal mooted by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Nyapyidaw to resolve the Rohingya crisis; the consolidation of Sino-Philippines relations; the presence of the ASEAN leaders at the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); among others. The January 2017 White Paper outlining China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation emphasised that China regards ASEAN as a priority in its neighbourhood diplomacy.

ASEAN-China trade reached $368 billion in 2016. China is ASEAN’s fourth largest external source of Foreign Direct Investment.

China’s moves in the South China Sea would be seen with anxiety and wariness not only by China’s neighbours but also by those in the region and beyond.  And China’s disdainful reaction to the International Arbitral’s decision on the subject was too evident to underscore what an analyst called as international law being powerless against the powerful and powerful against the powerless. China’s response to the North Korean missile programme will continue to be monitored.

From an Indian perspective, China is supposed to have expressed reservations on India’s membership of the ARF. It has objected to India’s oil exploration in Vietnamese waters. It has commented on India’s defence cooperation with some of the ASEAN countries. China is not openly supportive of India’s membership of APEC.

India’s reservations on the BRI are well known – the absence of transparency and responsibility, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, among others. Its passage through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir is totally unacceptable to India. China’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean and its pro-active approach towards projects under the BRI in this region does raise some concern. India’s handling of the Doklam issue showed maturity, a subject closely followed in ASEAN Chancelleries. At the same time, India has made it clear to China that their differences should not be converted to disputes. India has also emphasised that competition with China is unnecessary as the world has enough space for both India and China.

India’s exceptional relations with Japan have had positive reverberations in the region. The India-Japan proposal of Asia Africa Growth Corridor could provide an opportunity for ASEAN also.

Another area of interest is the Indian Ocean. As a trade and energy waterway, the Indian Ocean carries one-half of the world’s container shipments, one-third of bulk cargo traffic and two-thirds of oil shipments. Developments in and around the Indian Ocean would have their own resonance in India and ASEAN. The ASEAN Big-4 and India are members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Prime Minister Modi’s concept of SAGAR – Security And Growth for All in the Region is a useful initiative.

The emergence of the Blue Economy as an important pillar of growth and prosperity in economic development of ocean countries provides another platform for engagement between India and ASEAN.

India has actively participated in HADR activities in the Indian Ocean region. The most notable and visible activity was the Indian Navy’s support to Sri Lanka and Indonesia following the Tsunami in 2004. International defence and security analysts saw this as India’s arrival onto the world stage as a naval superpower in the region.

There were some comments in the media and elsewhere that the recent meeting of Senior Officials of India, Japan, Australia and the USA, dubbed the Quad, could be a precursor to the emergence of a new anti-China alliance. India has made it clear that, this was not the purpose of the meeting. The MEA said that the meeting was “primarily focused on cooperation based on their converging vision and values for promotion of peace, stability and prosperity in an increasingly inter-connected region that they share with each other and with other partners”. China has reacted cautiously to the Quadrilateral meeting of Senior Officials in Manila. Trilateral and quadrilateral meetings between countries are not something new. China and India are part of the RIC bringing together Russia, India and China. They are also members of BRICS.

India’s engagement with ASEAN has paid good dividends and we need to continue to maintain the momentum in this direction. India and ASEAN need each other in a complex region where one super power is stepping back allowing a more combative and supremely ambitious power into the area. While India has done well in the political and security, cultural and people to people areas, a lot more will need to be done on the trade, economic and connectivity fronts with ASEAN to help the relationship blossom further. This will provide traction for growth, development and security bilaterally for India and ASEAN members and the region as a whole.

[M. Ganapathi is a retired Ambassador who served in the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. He is Member of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. The views expressed are the author’s own.]

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