Regional organisations are increasingly becoming a vital feature of modern international architecture. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has completed its golden jubilee recently in 2017, is a regional grouping of 10 separate nation-states—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. It was formed by five countries,which later extended to ten members. ASEAN also shares wide ranging partnerships with various other regional organisations and countriessuch as India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and United States. It is the most institutionalised regional association in Asia and a classic example of successful regional multilateralism. It has not remained a mere talk shop, but embraced economic integration and thereby slowly transformed a once impoverished ASEAN region with some war-torn countries into a dynamic economic power house. The combined ASEAN GDP rose from US$95 billion in 1970 to US$2.55 trillion in 2016 and is expected to reach US$6.4 trillion by 2027. If it were a single entity, ASEAN would be ranked as the sixth largest economy in the world just behind USA, China, Japan, Germany, and UK. France is also at about the same position. ASEAN is projected to emerge as the fourth largest economy in the world by 2050 with some describing it as the growth engine of the world.
All the first five ASEAN countries – Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, which once suffered varying degrees of internal communist insurgencies, managed to surpass them. ASEAN’s success has resulted in fundamental transformation of geopolitics and geo-economics in Southeast Asia. Its diplomatic weight bears footprints not only in Southeast Asia and East Asia but also in the broader Indo-Pacific region and in the global arena.
India and ASEAN share geographical proximity and a robust people to people relationship deeply rooted in history and culture. On seeing deep cultural imprints, Rabindranath Tagore, during his visit to Indonesia lamented, “I see India everywhere, but I do not recognize it.” Even today, in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, statues placed at major traffic intersections, depict figures from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. JeferySng, a former diplomat based in Bangkok and Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore in their jointly authored book “The ASEAN Miracle” observes, “Many ordinary Southeast Asians are well acquainted with figures from, say, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Yet, they would be surprised to learn that these figures, which they consider to be part of their heritage, come from India.” Perhaps no other country can match India’s long historical links with Southeast Asia. Ancient maritime trade routes had linked the Kalingas, Pallavas and Cholas to Southeast Asia. Barring Vietnam and the Philippines, all other eight ASEAN countries share some sort of cultural roots in or exchanges with Indian civilization.
India’s Look East Policy, articulated during the government of PV NarasimhaRao, is re-phrased and energised as ‘Act East Policy’ by the incumbent government and itsbeing in full gear is visible from the Republic Day invite to all ASEAN leaders. That India-ASEAN partnership is on the upward trajectory is evident from the fact that the partnership had graduated from Sectoral Dialogue Partnership in 1992 to Full Dialogue Partnership in 1996 to Summit Level Partnership in 2002 and then to Strategic Partnership in 2012. ASEAN is home to about 7 million Indian diaspora. All ASEAN countries are among the list of countries to which India’s e-Visa facility is available. India has set-up ASEAN-India Centre (AIC) in New Delhi in 2013 and a separate ASEAN diplomatic mission in Jakarta in 2015 in order to smoothly and speedily facilitate India’s engagements with ASEAN. Currently, 30 different dialogue mechanisms focusing on range of sectors are operational.
Mutually Beneficial Engagement
India-ASEAN relations are mutually advantageous and beneficial on economic, cultural and strategic fronts. India-ASEAN economic ties are gradually deepening. Statistics of 2016 show, ASEAN was India’s 4th largest trading partner, accounting for 10 per cent of India’s total trade whereas India was ASEAN’s 7th largest trading partner. India’s production linkages with ASEAN countries especially with Malaysia in electronics, with Thailand in automobiles, with Singapore in digital networks, are strengthening. There is rapid growth in India’s textile trade with Vietnam. India’s mostly service oriented economy has got potential to compliment the mostly manufacturing-based economy of ASEAN. India is a member of ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which when implemented is likely to cover 40 per cent of world population, 40 per cent of world trade and 33 per cent of global GDP. Government of the state of Andhra Pradesh has availed support from Singapore in designingmasterplanof its upcoming new capital Amaravati and is also drawing collaboration with it for infrastructure development in its new capital city.
North East (NE) India is looked atby some as being at the frontier of India at a remote corner. But if South Asia and Southeast Asia is taken as a continuum, which is a geographical reality, then NE India is right at the middle of it. India needs to tap this advantage to its full potential. Whereas over 3 million Indian tourists go to ASEAN countries every year, only about seven lakhtourists from ASEAN come to India. China and Japan are more preferred tourist destinations for ASEAN people. With improved connectivity, geared up infrastructure, enhanced awareness,NE India, with its charming tourist destinations, should be able to attract greater number of tourists from ASEAN countries.Potential for land based international connectivity is the highest in NE. Borders must be made vibrant with land ports and NE must be evolved as a hub of healthcare and education facilities besides tourism.
Both India and ASEAN are rich with diversity andnurture a culture of tolerance and co-existence.Ecosystem of peace provided by ASEAN and its live illustration of the culture of co-existencemay hopefully help moderate the aggressive impulses of China, which has got economic interests in ASEAN. India and ASEAN collaboration would be promising in securing trade routes, ensuring freedom of navigation and sustaining a rule-based order in Indo-Pacific region in particular, which is vital for economic and security interests all stakeholders.
Republic Day Invite to ASEAN
India has invited Heads of States of all ten ASEAN countries to take part as Chief Guests in upcoming Republic Day parade on 26th January 2018. Except in 1956, 1968 and 1974 when India had two Republic Day guests, in all other years since 1950, there was only one chief guest each year. Hosting ten heads of states as Chief Guests on Republic Day parade this year is a unique symbolic gesture, underlining the importance India attaches to further strengthening friendly relations with all ASEAN countries. New Delhi will also host an ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit on January 25, which marks the silver jubilee of the establishment of dialogue partnership between India and ASEAN. India-ASEAN partnership can play a vital role in shaping 21st century as the Asian century.
(SrihariAvuthu is an advocate and assistant editor of India Foundation Journal, brought out by India Foundation, a Delhi based think tank. Views expressed are personal.)