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India's Deepening of Engagement with ASEAN

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a four-day visit to two important member countries of the ASEAN – Brunei and Indonesia – beginning 9 October to take forward India’s Look East policy. In Brunei, Singh took part at the 11th India-ASEAN summit on 9 October, followed by the 8th East Asia Summit on 10 October, before travelling for a first bilateral visit to Indonesia the next day. What does this important visit mean to India’s Asian strategy in its foreign policy calculus?

There are twin purposes that define India’s foreign policy activism, which is why Singh’s visits to these two ASEAN member countries mean a lot for Asia’s future. The first is to send a message to China which is behaving like a bully in regional affairs and to the other Asian members that a consensus needs to be built to meet the China challenge. Viewed differently, this is India’s positive response to address the concerns of smaller Asian countries about China’s assertiveness and that India shares these concerns with them and therefore on the same page. Secondly, as a rising economic power, India has been building up closer economic relations with the region and the trip is another attempt to enhance the level of these partnerships. Singh also discussed navigational rights in the South China Sea with the ASEAN member countries.

There remained some differences on the issue of FTA, which needed to be addressed with certain urgency. Thailand and the Philippines had certain questions about the legalities concerning the FTA. Ashok Kantha, Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External Affairs clarified that the process of “legal scrubbing” of the FTA was already completed and the observations raised by the Philippines and Thailand had been addressed in the document. Kantha also clarified that India’s position on the South China Sea dispute was that India favoured protection of the maritime commons and freedom of navigation as per international laws.

In his opening statement at India-ASEAN summit in Brunei Darasallam on 10 October, the Prime Minister stressed the importance of connectivity as one of India’s strategic priorities. He informed the delegates that India is nearing completion of the Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo sector of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway. New Delhi has also given approval to repairing 71 bridges in the same sector. India met its commitments on the 160 km of Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road of the Trilateral Highway and took on an additional commitment of 120 km in the Kalewa-Yargyi sector. Singh promised that India would closely work with Thailand and Myanmar to ensure that this project is completed by 2016. He underscored the possibility of extending this Highway to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, its further linkage with ports in ASEAN countries and its integration with models like Special Economic Zones. Singh noted that this would “call for innovative financial and institutional mechanisms”.

The Prime Minister noted that the first meeting between the ASEAN Connectivity Coordinating Committee and India took place in 2013. The decision to establish a Working Group on Soft Infrastructure along the corridors of connectivity addresses a key factor in the success of the connectivity projects. He suggested that officials begin discussions on an ASEAN-India Transit Transport Agreement with a view to completing it by 2015. He also showed optimism that the proposed Maritime Transport Working Group to be set up soon. There is also a need “to create a policy environment and visa regime that facilitates (our) professionals and entrepreneurs to travel and work across (our) region”. India has recently established exchange programme for students, farmers, diplomats, media and parliamentarians and the ASEAN-India Network of Think Tanks. These exchanges sow the seeds of better understanding and productive partnerships between India and ASEAN member countries. As announced in 2012, India has set up an ASEAN-India Centre in New Delhi to supplement these efforts towards cooperation. The Prime Minister informed that many of India’s “cooperative projects with the ASEAN under the Plan of Action for 2010 to 2015 are coming to fruition. The project to establish a Satellite Tracking and Data Reception Station and Data Processing Facility in Vietnam and the upgrading of a Telemetry Tracking and Command Station in Indonesia will begin to see implementation by April 2014. Projects to set up four IT Centres in CLMV countries, supported by a Resource Centre located in India, have also been finalized for implementation.”

Indeed, prior to his departure, Singh had announced that his visits “will further intensify (our) engagement with East, which has been at the forefront of (our) foreign policy, and contribute to peace, prosperity and stability in the Asia Pacific”. Indeed, both Brunei and Indonesia are two important partners of India in South East Asia, and that India’s engagement with the ASEAN, a ten-member block of countries, including Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam has remained the cornerstone of its “Look East” policy. This has leapfrogged into a strong, comprehensive and multi-faceted partnership in recent years.

Besides, deepening economic ties, India has been also expanding cooperation in areas of security and connectivity. India’s historical cultural roots with the region also help in realizing this objective. Singh’s visit assumed further significance as India was looking to ink a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on services and investments by the end of 2013 with ASEAN. An FTA on goods is already in place between India and ASEAN and it has significantly helped expand the trade with this regional block. The ASEAN-India trade currently stands at $76 billion. It is targeted to be increased to $100 billion by 2015 and to $200 billion by 2022.

The potential areas for further cooperation between India and ASEAN are across sectors like science and technology, agriculture, environment, human resources, space, energy, telecom, infrastructure, tourism, culture, health and pharmaceuticals. During the EAS meeting, a formal inter-governmental agreement was signed on the ambitious Nalanda University in Bihar. The University, set to come up 12 kms from the Nalanda ruins, may start its first academic session from 2014.

India wants commitments from Japan, China and 13 other regional nations to help revive Nalanda University as it is worried that India is becoming a single parent to what started out as a multi-nation initiative. During the visit, Singh pushed for the 16 nation to ink an official treaty binding them together as partners in the project. These 16 nations had agreed to rebuild the Buddhist centre of learning, destroyed in the 12th century, when India suggested the plan in 2006 and subsequently promised to jointly establish the new university as an international institution headquartered in Rajgir, Bihar. But seven years on, India is bearing almost the entire financial burden of the project and therefore needs support from other Asian nations. This time around, eight out of the 18 East Asian countries signed a MoU on the Nalanda University to be made an international institute.

Singh also discussed cooperation with East Asian countries in areas like drug trafficking, piracy and security issues. Integrating the economies of the region by trade and investment cooperation has been the most rewarding strategy in the 21st century for market economies. The East Asia Summit appropriately integrates a market of more than three billion people with a combined GDP of $17.23 trillion. The issue of gas imports from Brunei, besides other areas of energy cooperation, figured during discussion in Brunei.

After Brunei, Singh visited Indonesia from October 10-12 and discussed key issues of security, trade and investments, connectivity and cultural cooperation with top leadership there. In recent years, India and Indonesia have considerably expanded their cooperation in areas like trade, defence and security. Trade and investments between the two countries reached $20 billion in 2012-13. In 2011-12, it had declined somewhat because of global financial situation. The trade has grown almost five times since the establishment of a strategic partnership in 2005.

The Summit in Brunei was first since the elevation of India’s relations with the ASEAN to a Strategic Partnership mark two decades of the India-ASEAN relations, at the special Commemorative Summit in New Delhi and the conclusion of the India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement in Services and Investment in December 2012. The summit also gave Singh and the ASEAN leaders an opportunity to review the progress in their past relations and explore initiatives to add further momentum and content to the relationships.

Since the first EAS summit seven years ago, the EAS has travelled a long journey and has emerged as foremost forum for promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the dynamic Asia Pacific region. Given India’s vital stakes in the region, it has been closely involved in the evolution of an open, balanced and inclusive regional architecture, on the basis of the centrality of the ASEAN. India, therefore, sees the EAS as a springboard to regional cooperation and integration and participating in the negotiations for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) among the ASEAN and its FTA partners. The idea is to create a giant free trade area encompassing the major Asian economies by 2015. Such an initiative will help create an economic community in the region in the near future. If the proposed RCEP trade area is realized as planned, this will be the largest in terms of population, and could be the largest trade bloc in the world. It will bring in Japan, China and India – three of Asia’s largest economies – within one agreement. The combined population of India and ASEAN constitute a community of 1.8 billion people. This means one-fourth of humanity live in this part of the world. The combined GDP is of $3.8 trillion and India-ASEAN trade is ballooning. Also the ASEAN is India’s fourth-largest trading partner after the EU, the U.S. and China. On the sidelines of the summit in Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei Darussalam, Singh met his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott and the two leaders decided to step up their strategic cooperation. Both sides also hoped to see early closure of negotiations on a civil nuclear agreement for supply of uranium. Both Singh and Abbott also agreed to push for the conclusion of the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement that would include coverage of investment and trade in goods and services. So far, both the countries have had two rounds of negotiations on the nuclear agreement. The uranium issue has remained a touchy one in Australian domestic politics and this problem seems to have been sorted out as political parties considered larger interests of sculpting a comprehensive partnership with India and thought that the uranium issue must not be allowed to derail the evolving partnership. India’s rising profile also seems to have also influenced rethinking in Australia. Once the nuclear agreement is finalized, this will create a framework for the Australian sale of uranium to India. The third round of negotiations slated to take place in December 2013 would be crucial.

The Indian Prime Minister also had a bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister of Japan, Abe Shinzo. The two prime ministers had met last time in May when Singh had a summit meeting in Tokyo. They reviewed the ongoing projects such as Delhi Metro, Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, besides reiterating the importance of strategic cooperation and defence/security cooperation.

While in Indonesia, Singh announced India’s intensions “to create an institutional framework to further enhance the content of (our) cooperation in the years ahead”. Singh was accompanied by External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid and Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma. Indonesia’s main strength is that it is a 17,500-plus island nation with huge palm oil acreage and has an export trade surplus. It also exports gas. India has a huge opportunity to engage Indonesia economically for mutual benefit. Singh used the visit to leverage exports of Indian products to this island nation.

Thus it transpires that India has taken a major step forward in deepening its Look East policy by forging strategic partnership with a number of Asian countries. As a part of this policy, the Prime Minister also announced that India would set up a permanent mission in Jakarta and a separate ambassador for ASEAN. This is a major landmark development. Overall, Singh’s visit has been highly successful in India’s foreign policy strategy in Asia.

( The writer, Dr. Rajaram Panda is Visiting Faculty at the Centre for Japanese Studies and Centre for Korean Studies, School of Language, Literature & Culture Studies, JNU, New Delhi. E-mail:

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