The visit of all ten ASEAN leaders to New Delhi on 25-26 January, as guests of honour at India’s Republic Day celebrations, marks a high for Indian diplomacy and for India-ASEAN partnership. In the past, we have invited at the most two Heads of State government as guests of honour: Alexei Kosygin & Josip Tito in 1968 and Sirimavo Bandaranaike as well as Josip Tito in 1974.
India and ASEAN nations, some of which are our immediate neighbours, have enjoyed robust trade, maritime, cultural and people-to-people exchanges over two millennia. The ties have been successfully and befittingly recrafted in modern times, especially since the unveiling of our ‘Look East Policy’ in 1991 (since re-christened as ACT East Policy).
It may, therefore, sound incredulous that India, riding high on Non-Aligned Movement, had declined ASEAN’s membership-invitation in the late sixties, believing that the latter was an American inspired anti-Communist grouping. Prof. Sumit Ganguly in his book ‘India Since 1980’ observes, "…Indian leadership had spurned the overtures of the founders of ASEAN when it was formed. …they felt that is was composed exclusively of states that had close ties with the US, was simply another anti-Communist and anti-Soviet bastion in Asia, and that India could ill-afford to become a member of any such organization’. How the sands of time shift!
Both sides, over the last twenty-five years, have invested considerably in building closer relations, which were elevated to the level of strategic partnership in 2012. The ties essentially rest on three pillars (or 3 Cs) – Commerce, Connectivity and Culture.
India and ASEAN nations together encompass a population of 1.8 billion and a GDP of US$ 4.5 trillion. The potential, thus, is enormous. The sides operationalised a ‘Free Trade Area in Goods’ in January 2010 and concluded a 'Free Trade Area in Services and Investment’ in September 2014.
The fact, however, remains that the 'Free Trade Area in Goods' is not ambitious enough. It covers merely 90% of product lines and has just about managed to pluck the low-hanging fruit. The FTA in Services and Investment has yet to be operationalised, as Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia have still to ratify it. As a result, bilateral trade is stagnating around $70 billion after attaining a high of $ 80 billion in 2011-12. The best way forward, therefore, is to qualitatively review and upgrade the FTA in Goods.
A Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement is also under discussion among ASEAN plus six of its partner nations which include India, China, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand. While we are participating in the negotiations, we do have serious difficulties, first and foremost about opening our doors further to Chinese imports. As it is, we have an over $50 billion trade deficit with China. RCEP could result in an avalanche of Chinese goods in the Indian market, adversely impacting the Indian manufacturing industry, especially in the Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SME) sector.
Connectivity lies at the heart of any relationship and it is particularly important for India’s north-eastern region, which has a land border with Myanmar. India has initiated a number of surface and air connectivity projects with ASEAN. In 2002, we proposed the India – Myanmar - Thailand trilateral highway project. It has made progress in fits and starts, missed several deadlines but has yet to be completed. The fate of the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, announced by India in 2008, has been quite similar. It is in India’s interest to resist the temptation of unveiling new initiatives and concentrate instead on the expeditious conclusion of projects in the pipeline.
India and ASEAN are doing much better on the cultural front and on enhancing people-to-people, especially youth exchanges.
A final word about the China factor. There is a mistaken notion in some quarters that ASEAN views India as a counterweight or alternative to China. This perception is completely far-fetched.
True, both ASEAN nations and India are concerned about Chinese muscle-flexing. True, we both stand for freedom of navigation on the high seas and are averse to threat or use of force in dispute settlement. And, therefore, both sides are increasingly consulting each other, building on synergies and staking out common positions where feasible. That said, India herself seeks a cordial and cooperative relationship with China, with which she shares a 4000 km long difficult border.
India and ASEAN are natural partners. We have similar aspirations and challenges. A closer relationship is of mutual interest. Both sides need to stay the course and reinvigorate efforts to narrow the gulf between ambition and action.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)