"Positioning India-ASEAN Relations in a transformed Asian landscape"

Positioning India-ASEAN Relations in a transformed Asian landscape

By: Dr. Reena Marwah

ICSSR Senior Fellow,

Ministry of Human Resource Development, Govt. of India


1.      With the increasing tensions between the United States and China, there is an atmosphere of uncertainty in the global arena. At the same time, Indian foreign policy has been keen to engage with the big powers and with ASEAN in several dimensions. Given China’s expanding footprint in South and Southeast Asia, India has had to re-imagine its relations with ASEAN since 2014 and there is no doubt that engagements between ASEAN and India have been transformed more into strategic areas, culture and connectivity.

2.      It was in 1991 that India's 'Look East' policy was initiated by the Narasimha Rao government. India, stirred with its civilizational linkages with the East and frustrated in its efforts to bind countries of South Asia together, since the launching of SAARC in 1985, vowed to evolve closer linkages with its neigbours on its East and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This coincided with India’s reform and liberalization policy, leading to a transformation in India’s annual growth rates, further aiding its vision to engage outside the limited sphere of South Asia.

3.      Under the current government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the policy has been re-named as 'Act East' policy, with a view to signal to ASEAN that India would be acting on connectivity initiatives as well as other planned projects. 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 of all the heads of State of the ten ASEAN member countries.

3.      ASEAN’s strategic importance for India is undergirded 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. Secondly, 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. Third, India 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. Here it is important to note that over the period 1993 to 2003 India ASEAN two-way trade had risen by more than 11%. India and ASEAN countries have made progress in trade relations after the ASEAN INDIA FTA came into effect on Jan 1, 2010, with bilateral trade in 2017-18 having now reached almost 80 billion USD; however this pales when compared to the ten times larger China-ASEAN trade. ASEAN countries and China are also pushing India into signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which despite more than twenty rounds of negotiations continues to be on hold, here too, it is the threat of mass inflows of Chinese goods into India. Fourth, the China factor also motivated India to not only strengthen its infrastructure in the North East but also to engage more deeply with Southeast Asian countries. In terms of the post-Cold War geo-political sphere and its own strategic positioning, there was an imperative for India to be a balance to China, in its neighbourhood.  Fifth, India’s ‘Act East’ policy, during the Modi government, has led to its growing involvement in India’s East Asian neighbourhood 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 interests 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. Sixth, India’s cultural bonding with Southeast Asia, has further provided it a lever for enhancing cultural diplomacy and soft power initiatives. Seventh, India seeks the cooperation of ASEAN countries on strategic issues - in developing the concept of the Indo-Pacific, seeking a pivotal role for itself alongwith the United States, Japan, and Australia. (These three countries are also partners in the ‘Quad’ configuration). ASEAN countries responses to the Indo-Pacific concept (as received through a survey conducted by ISEAS) reflects the ambiguity of the concept and ASEAN countries would like to understand what role India will play and also expects greater clarity on the concept itself.  

4.      In conclusion, 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 SEA and most countries are keen to expand strategic ties for a safe, secure and peaceful environment, which is conducive for development.