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ASEAN takes centre stage

India and South East Asian nations reaffirm commitment to strengthen ties

ASEAN takes centre stage

The link: The recent ministerial meetings commemorated the 30th anniversary of India’s sectoral partnership with ASEAN. PTI



K. P. Nayar

Strategic Analyst

In diplomacy, as in personal life, anniversaries are often excuses for a bigger cause or calling. The ‘special meeting’ of foreign ministers in New Delhi last week to observe three anniversaries of South East Asia’s engagement of India was no different. Each of the three anniversaries was a milestone in the evolution of Indian foreign policy after the end of the Cold War. Last week’s ministerial meetings between India and ASEAN commemorated the 30th anniversary of India’s sectoral partnership with ASEAN, its summit-level partnership 10 years later and their strategic partnership in 2012. All these are worthy of celebration through high-profile events, which the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) lived up to.

In the backdrop of the Ukraine war, India must prioritise its dealings with the rest of the world. ASEAN and GCC are two natural choices for deeper engagement.

But the real purpose of the ‘Special ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers’ Meeting’ was to reassure ASEAN that India’s role in the later-day Quad, and the newest Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), will not diminish New Delhi’s commitment to political and security ties with South East Asia or the Modi government’s economic and trade-based policies towards the region.

In order to contextualise ASEAN-India relations as rooted in history that cannot be displaced by new, amorphous groupings, Vivian Balakrishnan, the Foreign Minister of Singapore, told the meeting that ‘relations between India and ASEAN go back not 30 years, but thousands of years. Even our religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam either originated from, or vetted through India into South East Asia.’ Adding a personal note, he said his name was Indian. So was the name of Retno Marsudi, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister seated by his side. ‘I daresay that even Pornpimol has Sanskritic origins.’ The reference was to Pornpimol Kanchanalak, Thailand Foreign Minister’s Special Representative on Myanmar, who was present.

The population of ASEAN countries is roughly half that of India. But ASEAN’s combined GDP is almost the same as India’s. The ASEAN ministers who came to New Delhi want both sides to join forces so that their GDP can be doubled or quadrupled.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was forthright in assuring the visiting ministers that ‘India fully supports a strong, unified and prosperous ASEAN, one whose centrality in the Indo-Pacific is fully recognised.’ Just as they wanted reassurance that Quad and the IPEF will not short-change India’s ties with ASEAN, Jaishankar also wanted to know the collective views of ASEAN on how they see the world after the Ukraine war. India, it has been clear for a long time, is uncomfortable with a unipolar world in which one power is dominant.

Once again, it was left to Balakrishnan in typical Singapore style to outline his region’s perception of changes that are coming. ‘On the global strategic stage, we have transited from a unipolar moment — we are going past the bipolar world — and are emerging into a multipolar world. In that multipolar world, India will be a major tent pole, and so will, I hope, South East Asia. The question then is what could possibly derail our fulfilment of that potential?’

Statistics at the ministerial session – and a one-day plurilateral meeting of senior officials on the anniversary eve – were encouraging. Especially so, with Covid infections rising in India, raising fears of a fourth wave. In 2020-21, the worst period of the pandemic, Singapore’s trade with India increased by 35% over the previous year of normalcy. A revelation which participating ministers found ‘amazing’ was that as much as 30% of foreign direct investment into India comes through Singapore.

The meeting served as a reminder of small, but important elements in mutual association, which are overlooked when multilateral engagement is smooth and devoid of major issues. One such instance was a reference to shared rituals, in this case, the sanctity of rice all over South East Asia. Rice-based rituals in ASEAN countries are owed to South India, from where people have been migrating to the region since times immemorial.

In the coming months, as geopolitical and geostrategic alliances are unmade and remade all over the world following the war in Ukraine, the MEA will find inputs from the meeting invaluable in crafting its own post-war priorities. India’s policies since the end of its nuclear winter in the aftermath of the Pokhran II tests of welcoming engagement with everyone who reaches out will no longer be workable or pragmatic. Choices will not be easy, but are inescapable. It will no longer be possible to chase every relationship without discrimination.

Europe, for example, will be caught up in a quagmire of its own making after the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The continent made wrong choices: instead of protecting the interests of their people, most European leaders chose narrow, short-term priorities in blindly following Washington to a dead end on Ukraine. It was clear from speeches at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a premier defence summit held recently in Singapore, that European leaders, well represented there, want India and like-minded nations to follow them in their misguided course.

India will, therefore, pick and choose, prioritise its dealings with the rest of the world. In doing so, ASEAN is a natural choice for deeper engagement. Countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are another. With special outreach — maybe a visit or two by the PM — the controversy over remarks about the Prophet can be defused.

In dealing with ASEAN, a Co-Chairs’ statement will serve as a guide. Its highlight is preparing MSMEs for digital transformation, capacity building, technical cooperation mechanisms and business-matching activities. MSMEs are the backbone of the economies of ASEAN and India and took the worst hit during the pandemic.


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