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

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.