The India-ASEAN Partnership at 25
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Issue Courtesy: IDSA | Date : 07 Jan , 2018

India and the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are currently celebrating 25 years of their rapidly expanding partnership. They are also marking 15 years of their Summit engagement and five years of Strategic their Partnership. Several events are being held in India and various ASEAN countries to mark these milestones. In addition, ASEAN completed 50 years of its establishment in 2017.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the partnership, all 10 Heads of States/Governments of ASEAN States will participate as Chief Guests in the Republic Day celebrations on 26 January 2018. This is for the first time that more than one Head of State/Government has been invited as Chief Guest on India’s National Day. It is also a measure of India’s growing international profile and prestige that leaders of all 10 ASEAN countries have readily acquiesced to participate in this event. The presence of the entire ASEAN leadership on this occasion is a natural extrapolation of the Act East Policy (AEP) launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the first East Asia Summit (EAS) attended by him in Myanmar in November 2014.

Act East Policy

AEP is the successor to the Look East Policy (LEP) that was put in place by then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1992 under radically different geo-political and economic circumstances. LEP was primarily focused on strengthening economic ties between India and ASEAN states. The end of the cold war and disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 provided a welcome opportunity for India to reach out to South-East Asia to capitalize upon its historical, cultural and civilisational linkages with the region. As External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said at the recently held ninth edition of the Delhi Dialogue, India’s age old ties with South-East Asia have been established through culture, trade and religion and not through ”conquest and colonization.”

The Look East Policy registered impressive gains for 20 years after its inception. Having become a sectoral partner of ASEAN in 1992, India became a dialogue partner and member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1996. India and ASEAN entered into a summit partnership in 2002, the 10th anniversary of LEP, and launched negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in goods in 2003. These discussions culminated in a bilateral deal being concluded in 2009 and becoming effective in 2010. Bilateral trade and investment showed impressive gains in the first decade of this century. While bilateral trade increased from USD 2 billion in 1992 to 12 billion in 2002, registering a growth of 12 per cent annually, it zoomed to 72 billion in 2012 with a cumulative annual growth rate of around 22 per cent over the preceding 10 years. India’s two-way trade with ASEAN now stands at approximately USD 76 billion. India and ASEAN missed out on achieving the two-way trade target of USD 100 billion set during the Commemorative Summit held on the 20th Anniversary of the bilateral partnership in 2012 in New Delhi. The India-ASEAN Free Trade pact in services and investments, which was concluded in 2014 and came into effect a year later, has the potential to reduce India’s trade deficit with the region as also impart a strong impulse to bilateral exchanges. India is also a part of the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which, when concluded and implemented, will cover almost 40 per cent of the world’s population, 33 per cent of global GDP and 40 per cent of world trade.

India and ASEAN are natural partners in their desire to create a free, open and inclusive regional architecture. They are active participants in the East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF).

Currently, there exist 30 different dialogue mechanisms between India and the ASEAN states focusing on a range of sectors. These comprise an annual Summit and seven Ministerial meetings focused on a variety of areas that include foreign affairs, economy, environment, tourism, etc. The ASEAN-India Centre (AIC), established in 2013, has enhanced the strategic partnership by concentrating on policy research and recommendations as well as organising meetings between think-tanks and similar institutions in India and ASEAN countries. AIC seeks to bridge the existing information divide amongst the people of the two regions. Exchange programmes have been put in place for frequent interaction between students, senior officials, diplomats, academics, media professionals, etc.

Challenges and Opportunities

Common concerns and aspirations as well as similar threats and challenges confront the ASEAN countries and India at a time when not only Asia but the whole world is in the throes of an uncertain and unpredictable phase. Developments over the next few months and years could determine the final contours of relations in Asia and the world.

Connectivity between India and ASEAN, particularly Myanmar and Thailand, has emerged as a significant element in cementing bonds between the two regions. Better infrastructure connecting Northeast India and ASEAN has become the sine qua non for stronger economic and trade partnership and vital contributor to prosperity and economic development of the region. Two major connectivity projects, viz., the Trilateral Highway between north-east India and Myanmar and onwards to Thailand (and Laos and Vietnam) as well as the Kaladan multi-modal transit and transport project, have been under implementation for several years. The NDA government has taken it up seriously. It is highly likely that both will soon become operational. The allocation of USD 1 billion by Prime Minister Modi during his visit to Malaysia in September 2015 to support connectivity projects is testimony to the importance that the government attaches to rapidly developing infrastructure and bring the regions closer.

Stronger relations between India and Myanmar have also helped to quell insurgency and extremism in the north-eastern states of India. Peace, stability and security of north-east India will be further preserved and promoted with more robust ties and understanding with Myanmar. India has recognized that the success of the AEP will be determined by its contribution to security and economic development of Northeast India.

Relations with ASEAN have become multi-faceted to encompass security, connectivity, strategic, political, space technology, counter-terrorism and anti-insurgency operations, anti-radicalisation, trade and investment, maritime security and defence collaboration, in addition to economic ties. Cooperation to curb terrorism especially in the face of the rising influence of the Islamic State has assumed priority. Defence partnerships with several ASEAN states are advancing rapidly.

The large Indian diasporas in many Southeast Asian countries help strengthen diplomatic, economic and security relations between India and ASEAN as they contribute to expand and intensify bonds. The Indian diaspora comprises an important instrument of India’s soft power.

ASEAN continues to form the central pillar of India’s Act East Policy. This is evident from the very active exchange of visits that has taken place between India and the region. Prime Minister Modi has travelled to Singapore twice, once to attend the State funeral of Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in March 2015, and again to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations and establish a strategic partnership in November 2015; to Myanmar twice, once to participate in the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the India-ASEAN Summit in November 2014, and again on the way back from China in September 2017; to Malaysia in November 2015 for a bilateral visit as well as to attend the EAS and the India ASEAN Summit; to Laos in September 2016 for the EAS and India ASEAN Summit; to Vietnam on a bilateral visit en route to China in September 2016; and, to the Philippines to participate in EAS and India-ASEAN Summit in November 2017. He also made a short stopover in Thailand on his way to Japan in November 2016 to pay respect to the venerable, departed king Bhumibol Adulyadej. Visits from India have been reciprocated by high level visits from ASEAN States to India. Relations, which were earlier seen as lackadaisical, are again assuming renewed vigour.

India, ASEAN, and the Chinese Conundrum

In a rapidly evolving geo-political scenario marked by China’s assertive military, political and economic rise, the AEP has imparted greater dynamism to India’s ties with ASEAN.

The issue of ownership, control, use and exploitation of oil, gas, mineral and fisheries resources in the South China Sea has emerged as a major dispute between China and several ASEAN countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. This is an issue that has divided ASEAN down the middle. There is no unanimity amongst them on how to deal with China on this issue. India is concerned because more than 40 per cent of its trade passes through the South China Sea. It is also interested in harnessing fossil fuel resources in the region for meeting its energy needs. ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) entered into an agreement with Vietnam to prospect in oil blocks 127 and 128 off the Paracel islands which fall within the Exclusive Economic Zone of Vietnam. In all recent discussions in regional and international fora, India and several other countries have supported freedom of navigation, ensuring maritime security, expeditious resolution of disputes according to provisions of international law, viz., the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas 1982, developing a Code of Conduct, and settlement of disputes through dialogue and peaceful means.

China’s increasing intemperance and intractability over the last many years has added to the anxieties and concerns of countries in South East Asia and beyond. They want India to play a more active countervailing role in the region. This interest and desire on the part of these countries meshes flawlessly with the efforts by India to pro-actively reach out to countries of the region for mutually beneficial engagements.

India – U.S. Partnership in the Region

Relations between India and USA have progressed and grown in recent years. A strong impetus was provided by President Obama’s visit to India as the Chief Guest at its Republic Day function in 2015 and the issuance of a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region. This partnership was given a further fillip during the visit of US President Trump to East and Southeast Asia in November 2017. Trump’s consistent use of the expression ”Indo-Pacific” throughout his visit, instead of the more commonly used ”Asia Pacific” to signify that India is a significant player in the region and will need to be included in all discussions and decisions on peace and security of the region, sent out a clear message about the common position held by India and USA regarding developments in the region. It also signalled that the USA and India will partner each other to promote a free and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. A meeting of the Quad (USA, Japan, Australia and India) at the level of officials also gave a strong indication of the interest of these countries in working together to ensure a free, open, inclusive and prosperous region.


India and ASEAN account for about 30 per cent of the global population (i.e., 1.85 billion people) and a combined GDP of approximately USD 5.1 trillion. Together, they would form the third largest economy in the world. Given their combined clout, it is but natural for them to expand their areas of collaboration particularly in view of the rapidly changing and uncertain global and regional scenario. Originally conceived as an economic initiative in 1991, this engagement has evolved in terms of geographical expanse and sectoral reach across the three pillars of politico-security, economic and socio-cultural cooperation. Besides geographical proximity, historical commonalities, cultural affinities and commercial interests, India’s AEP has been driven by geo-strategic concerns as well.

The promotion of India’s geostrategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region depend on India’s bilateral and multilateral/regional engagements with the countries in the region. It is hence essential to strengthen collaboration with ASEAN as an organisation as well as with individual Southeast Asian countries.

Despite progress made over the last 25 years in India-ASEAN ties, there remains immense scope for further growth in the relationship. This is one of the most dynamic regions of the world today, and it is necessary for both India and ASEAN to actively collaborate to shape the so-called ‘Asian century’. A stronger partnership and enhanced cooperation should be prioritised by both sides if the full potential of this engagement is to be realised.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Ashok Sajjanhar

is President, Institute of Global Studies, and a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia.

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