India and ASEAN ties have gradually evolved over the years since India’s Independence. Interestingly though India-ASEAN had a natural geographical connectivity since antiquity with an overt emphasis on trade and culture, India’s assumption of its relation with Southeast Asia has always depended on geopolitical implications of Cold War and Post-Cold War trajectories. The policy diversion of India to give equal weight to geopolitics and geoeconomics in the age of globalisation became visible in India’s relation with ASEAN and vice versa. India has now internalised the conceptual security paradigm of “Indo-Pacific’ to mean comprehensive security among the littoral states. The confluence of two seas (Indian and the Pacific Ocean) makes Southeast Asia the central factor, but not an exclusive one. India will have a wider and broader defence and security tie-ups with different actors like Japan and Australia to expand the Indo-Pacific region towards Africa with Japan and towards Oceania with Australia. This broadens the ‘Look-East’ (now Act-East) policy as well. The quadrilateral arrangement between the United States, Australia, Japan and India will focus on maritime security by looping in ASEAN nations in no uncertain terms. India is geographically caught between the choke points of West Asia and Southeast Asia and therefore is required to have a clearer perspective of the Indo-Pacific region. Moreover, India’s ‘Act East’ Policy is the most significant policy of India’s comprehensive Indo-Pacific strategy, which engages Southeast Asian countries through maritime and air connectivity in enhancing regional/maritime security and trade and economy. Therefore, Southeast Asia is merged within South Asia through India’s ‘extended neighbourhood’ conception to showcase India’s strategic and economic priorities.
The look-east policy in 1991 gave a holistic perspective to the centrality of Southeast Asia. India acquired a sectoral dialogue status with ASEAN in 1993 to participate in trade, investment and tourism and in 1995 India became a full member of ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and in 2010 the ASEAN-India Free Trade Agreement (AIFTA) was finalised. Thus India began earnestly to re-establish and rejuvenate the lost or forgotten ties with its closest maritime nations. The Look-East got its wings through the Act East when India not only emphasised on trade, diplomacy and security to be linked to these nations but has looked inward in developing the most marginalised geographical entry point to the Southeast Asian countries, i.e. the Northeast India. India took the initiative in building highways and waterways, improving electricity and all-round development of Northeast India, which will be the gateway to ASEAN in order to enhance trade, culture, people-to-people contacts. The Northeast India is considered to be the first pillar in leading the Act East Policy towards success with rail, road and water connectivity; one such initiative is the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway of approximately1360km long. The Kaladan project connecting sea ports from East India to Myanmar, Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) a mega connectivity project are the multiple initiatives. The Indian government has also proposed $1billion as line of credit to improve physical and digital connectivity with ASEAN. Apart from connectivity, India-ASEAN economic and trade relations increased to US $80 billion in 2017-18 from US $58 billion in 2016. The present government’s ‘Make in India’ initiative has opened doors for foreign investments and joint ventures with visible increase in economic ties with these nations. ASEAN is a supplier of timber, coal, oil and natural gas and India needs sustained economic growth and energy security both to fight the domestic maladies and for balance of power in the region. Meanwhile, how India handles RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) is quite an interesting study; since it is an extended FTA with 10 ASEAN countries along with India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, which might impact seriously on the goods and particularly the services sector. RCEP is still an unfinished business deal which keeps India at bay. Moreover, India is worried about the trade deficit it already has with ASEAN FTA. Secondly the presence of China in RCEP may tilt the balance towards China both economically and strategically which might hamper India’s strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. And the important question to be asked at this juncture is; whether Indian domestic situation is ripe enough to open up to RCEP? On the contrary, RCEP is important to keep ‘Act East’ policy working holistically. Economic integration can happen when India strengthens its domestic industries and seriously tackle ‘bureaucratic inertia’ and allow the projects to complete in time. India’s assumed economic autarky of yester years had slowed down its economic and trade relations with different countries and made the domestic markets weak due to a lack of competition. Hence RCEP has to be negotiated from many angles.
Indian Diaspora in ASEAN countries is nearly 31 million which helps in not only enhancing cultural ties but will help in trade and investments. The economic and trade relationships keep evolving over a period of time, which is given shape with an increased people-to-people interaction, making the Indian Diaspora to play a constructive role. Diplomatically India actively participates in ASEAN led mechanisms like ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum), EAS (East Asia Summit) and ADMM+ (ASEAN Defence Ministerial Meetings Plus). The regional initiatives like Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (2000) and BIMSTEC in 2002-4 (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral, Technical and Economic Cooperation) has brought both the South Asian and Southeast Asian countries under one banner to enhance partnership. The most important connection or rather convergence of India and ASEAN is the consensus on maintaining the global rules based order and adherence to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). India-ASEAN Commemorative summit held in New Delhi with 10 ASEAN countries as chief guests to the Republic Day was to showcase India’s closer ties, through connectivity, commerce and culture with ASEAN nations which will be further enhanced with a focus on maritime security. But there is no unanimity on how to pursue the issue of Chinese assertiveness on South China Sea since not all 10 ASEAN nations are involved in the dispute. This makes it imperative for India to build a strong mechanism to bring all the ASEAN nations together in its pursuit of maritime security that involves security of resources being transacted in the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, ensure freedom of navigation, and tackle piracy, cyber crime and terrorism.
While concluding India is expected to play an assertive role in the Indo-Pacific by all the ASEAN nations, but India still lacks a blue print on the kind of role India will want to play in the new security architecture of Indo-Pacific. Will India give in to the quadrilateral arrangement? Will India try to build its own security regime in the region with its growing security culture? Will India give a chance to RCEP which can counter any security threat that might arise from China? Can ASEAN be supportive to India when they have nearly $470 billion trade (2016-17) with China compared to only $80billion trade with India? Will the convergence of ‘similar objectives’/ ‘shared destiny’ with ASEAN not get diluted to Chinese influence; especially due to ASEAN+3 (China, Japan, Korea), where China usually calls the shots? Moreover, India doesn’t have the same trade relation with every other ASEAN country and likewise ASEAN has never contributed to regional security as such. It remains to be seen how well ASEAN will join India in maintaining maritime peace and order and how well India can increase trade with all the ASEAN countries with a balance in export and import to India and build a lucrative maritime strategy in the Indo-Pacific.
Also published on Medium.