“Positioning India - ASEAN Relations in a transformed Asian Landscape”

Positioning India-ASEAN Relations in a transformed Asian landscape

INSSSL Public Lecture: ‘Positioning India- ASEAN Relationship in a transformed Asian landscape’ by Dr. Reena Marwah, Senior Fellow ICSSR, Ministry of Human Resource Development, Govt. of India

India has had to re-imagine its relations with ASEAN states in the wake of  China’s expanding footprints in South and Southeast Asia,  an Indian foreign policy expert opined, delivering a public lecture at the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka, the premier national security think tank under the ministry of defence.

Dr. Reena Marwah of  Ministry of Human Resource Development, Govt. of India noted  that driven by geo-strategic and geo-economic reasons, engagement between ASEAN and India has  expanded  into strategic areas, culture and connectivity, and Indo-ASEAN cooperation has grown in intensity  under the Modi administration.

Dr Marwah,  who is a Senior Fellow of Indian Council for Social Science Research ( ICSSR), was delivering her speech, titled Positioning India-ASEAN Relations in a transformed Asian landscape, on 29th of March 2019 at the INSSSL.


She observed that in light of increasing tensions between the United States and China, there is an atmosphere of uncertainty in the global arena. Same factors have also created a strategic necessity for India to engage with big powers and with ASEAN. Yet, she noted India’s ASEAN engagement dated back long prior to the strategic uncertainty in the global, and especially Asian regional system;  India’s 'Look East' policy was initiated by the Narasimha Rao government in 1991. At that time, the new policy was facilitated by the end of the Cold war and also partly due to New Delhi’s frustration at the lack of progress in SAARC, through which it sought, with limited success, to evolve a closer linkage with its South Asian neighbours.

This coincided with India’s economic reforms and liberalization policy, leading to higher economic growth rates, thus aiding its vision to engage outside the limited sphere of South Asia.

Under the current government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Look East policy has been re-named as 'Act East' policy, with a view to signal ASEAN states that India is turning its words into deeds in terms of enhancing Indo- ASEAN connectivity and integration.

2017 marked 25 years of their partnership, 15 years of summit-level interaction, and five years of strategic partnership. Multiple events were organized during the year, including the visits by all the heads of States of the ten ASEAN member countries to India to mark India’s Republican Day.

First, ASEAN’s strategic importance for India is underscored by several factors, including the location of the ASEAN countries, both on the continental shelf and the maritime space, providing access through the Malacca Straits.  Both Myanmar and Thailand open the gates for India to South East Asia. The geo-politics of this region has also been impacted by the opening up of Myanmar as well as the resolution of territorial conflicts within the ASEAN member countries.


As a Full Dialogue Partner of the ASEAN, India participates in a number of dialogue mechanisms including the annual summits, ARF, PMC+1, East Asia Summit, ADMM+, SOMs and meetings of experts.


Secondly,  India also seeks deeper engagement with a more globally integrated ASEAN Economic Community (AEC). With rising per capita incomes in countries such as Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Philippines and Thailand, India will have greater trade and investment opportunities in the east. Over the period  from 1993 to 2003, India- ASEAN two-way trade had risen by more than 11% annually, and crossed US $  80 billion in 2017-18 and is expected to cross  US $ 100 billion mark by 2020. Bilateral trade has made progress in trade relations after the ASEAN- INDIA FTA came into effect on Jan 1, 2010, however, the bilateral trade volume pales in comparison to China-ASEAN trade which is ten times larger.


 ASEAN countries, China and  India are also negotiating a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which despite more than twenty rounds of negotiations continues to be on hold, here too, it is due to the threat of mass inflows of Chinese goods into India.


Third, the China factor has also motivated India not only to strengthen its infrastructure in the North East but also to engage more deeply with Southeast Asian countries.  At the same time, in terms of the post-Cold War geo-political sphere and its own strategic positioning, there is an imperative for India to balance  against China’s expansion in its neighbourhood.


 Fourth, India’s ‘Act East’ policy, during the Modi government, has led to its growing involvement in India’s East Asian neighborhood especially in the field of maritime affairs. It has also led India to acknowledge its security responsibilities. More generally, India’s recent advances in maritime domain awareness, its interest in enhancing joint patrols and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) cooperation, as well as its efforts to contribute to the maritime security of its neighbors, including through weapon transfers, reflect that India is emerging as a net security provider.


Fifth, India seeks the cooperation of ASEAN countries on strategic issues  such as in developing the concept of the Indo-Pacific, under which New Delhi is aiming to position itself along with  the United States, Japan, and Australia. (These three countries are also partners in the ‘Quad’ configuration).

However, public and elite opinion within ASEAN on the  Indo-Pacific concept (as  gauged by a survey conducted by ISEAS) reflects the ambiguity of the concept. ASEAN countries expect a greater clarity on the concept and India’s role within it. 


Dr Marwah concluded by explaining that the given ASEAN’s increasing importance for India, strategic cooperation has to be strengthened. As India seeks rules-based partnerships and maritime cooperation much more remains to be done ‘if we are to achieve our vision of shared values and common destiny’.

Both China and the United States are jostling for influence in the Indo-Pacific, with China increasingly becoming more assertive through its Belt and Road Initiative which has already expanded to more than 65 countries. ASEAN countries are well aware that they can succeed in leveraging their position in terms of asserting themselves if they are united. Together ASEAN and India can contribute immensely in shaping the regional architecture, by working together in the Indo-Pacific. India is seen as a benign power by ASEAN states and most countries are keen to expand strategic ties with India for a safe, secure and peaceful environment, which is conducive for development.


India’s interaction with the ASEAN countries, both at the institutional and at the bilateral level, has facilitated seamless exchanges of ideas, traditional knowledge, culture, practices and developmental models. This has acted as a catalyst for discussions which are of mutual concern and relative importance. Since the formation of ASEAN and in the last two and a half decades of India’s institutional participation in the ASEAN process, dividends in the form of investment, trade and identified core areas of cooperation between business communities, societies and people have been realised. Interestingly, whenever there has been an absence of an agreed business, trade or investment agenda then culture, diaspora, films, archaeology, religion and arts have 124ASEAN at 50: A Look at Its External Relations resonated in the discussions and provided a stable platform for future discussions. Ever since the launch of the Look East Policy and its subsequent avatar as Act East Policy, the India-ASEAN relationship has formed the core of this policy. 

Without a doubt, India has been a latecomer in forging ties with Southeast Asia, despite the Look East policy of the Narasimha Rao government of the early 1990s. When Prime Minister Modi articulated the Act East policy, it was evident that ASEAN’s growing importance and centrality in the Asian landscape had been recognised.

The lecture will address aspects underlining ASEAN’s centrality, implying that it is at the core of trade agreements, at the centre of maritime power security including the freedom of navigation-; and a forum where leaders and people meet. At present, ASEAN is at the centre of the largest trade agreement – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership being negotiated among ASEAN plus six countries as well as the evolving Indo-Pacific construct at the strategic level.  With the transformations in the regional and global space, dominated by China’s rise, there is a visible change in the way countries in South East Asia are being bilaterally engaged by China.

This presents several challenges for India. Can India really Act East even as it is marginalized in its own traditional sphere of influence? Does it have the potential to measure upto the expectations of ASEAN countries? These and some other aspects of India’s regional positioning are discussed.