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Posted at: Feb 11, 2016, 12:37 AM; last updated: Feb 10, 2016, 11:17 PM (IST)

Asean the pivot of India’s Act East policy

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian nations, better known by its acronym Asean, is of strategic significance to India's foreign policy and economic interests. Also, India has close historical and cultural ties with many Asean nations.
Asean the pivot of India’s Act East policy
PM Narendra Modi & other leaders at the 13th Asean-India Summit in Kuala Lumpur. PTI

Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari's recent visit to Brunei and Thailand marked the first high-level bilateral visit by an Indian dignitary to Brunei from the time that tiny oil-rich sultanate attained Independence 32 years ago in 1984 and the first in 50 years by an Indian Vice President to Thailand. The last time that an Indian President visited Thailand on a bilateral visit was also almost half-a-century ago in 1972 by Varahagiri Venkata Giri. Considering that the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian nations, better known by its acronym Asean, has increasingly become critical to India’s strategic and economic interests, such bilateral visits are regarded with importance. 

The Asean region, which stretches from Myanmar to the Philippines in the east and up to Singapore and Indonesia in the south, is central to India's Look East (renamed Act East in 2014) policy and is located in New Delhi's very front yard. India shares a land border with Myanmar, an Asean member state, and maritime boundaries with two other member states — Indonesia and Thailand. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an archipelago of 572 islands in the Bay of Bengal, is located close to the three eastern approaches to the Indian Ocean comprising the three straits — Malacca, Lombok and Sunda — located in Southeast Asia. 

Of considerable value are the close historical and cultural ties India has with many Asean members, with tens of thousands of non-resident Indians living in these countries. The shared heritage ranges from Borobudor, the Mahayana Buddhist temple, in Indonesia to Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious monument, in Cambodia. The spread of Buddhism to Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam through emperor Ashoka's emissaries, the spread of Indian mythology and folklore, the Thai epic Ramakien based on the Ramayana and the many Indian emigrants to Southeast Asia — all reflect these traditional ties.  

But geography, history and culture apart, India embarked on concerted efforts to forge closer relations with the Asean (established in 1967) soon after the end of the Cold War and was relatively quick to attain success. India's Look East policy, adopted in the early 1990s, coincided with India becoming a Sectoral Dialogue partner in 1992, a Full Dialogue partner in 1995 and a member of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in 1996. 

In 2002, India's “arrival” was announced with the holding of a first-ever Asean-India Summit in Phnom Penh (Cambodia). In 2003, India acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), signed a counter-terrorism declaration with Asean in 2009 which was followed by signing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in goods that same year and an FTA in services with nine out of the 10 Asean members in 2014. In July 2015, the India-Asean Trade-in-Services and Investment Agreements came into force. Then again, for the first time, India was present at the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 2005, marking its entry into the East Asia zone. 

Such has been the rapidity and expansion of engagement with Asean that within two-and-a-half decades, India and this regional grouping have created as many as 30 annual dialogue mechanisms, including a summit at the Prime Ministerial level, seven sectoral dialogues at the ministerial level, and three funds — the Asean-India Cooperation Fund, Asean-India Science and Technology Fund and the Asean-India Green Fund. India has also opened a separate Mission to Asean and the East Asia Summit in Jakarta to further strengthen the engagement with these two regional groupings. 

In addition, there are the numerous bilateral agreements that India has entered into with the Asean members. Of equivalent significance are the areas of sub-regional cooperation with Asean members. These include the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and the BIMSIT-EC (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Cooperation). But a strategic priority for India is to achieve connectivity in all its dimensions — physical, institutional and people-to-people. For this, special efforts are being made to link Asean with North-East India. This is reflected in the finalisation of negotiations on the India-Myanmar-Thailand Motor Vehicles Agreement and the Asean-India Maritime Transport Cooperation Agreement. India is keen that the trilateral highway is extended to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore are already well connected by road. The Asean-India Civil Aviation Task Force is expected to oversee optimisation of air connectivity while other major projects on connectivity include the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project and Rhi-Tiddim Road. 

There has similarly been a steady growth in Asean-India trade, which in 2014-15 had increased to $76.58 billion from $44 billion in 2009-10 and just $7.4 billion in 2001-02. The balance of trade, however, continues to be in Asean’s favour, which is of concern to India. Of late, India has been exhorting Asean members to participate in “Make in India”, “Digital India”, “Skill India” and “Smart Cities” projects.  India is specifically seeking investments in infrastructure, manufacturing, trade, agriculture, skill development and urban renewal.

Of paramount importance, along with connectivity and economics, is cooperation on defence and security. India has developed a vibrant defence relationship with some of the Asean member states, with regular holding of joint military exercises. The Navy has been the most active, considering the huge maritime dimension to India-Asean relations. It is imperative to protect the sea lanes of communication and counter non-traditional threats such as piracy, smuggling, transnational crimes and drug trafficking which require strong coordinated action. Then again, the heightened threat of extremism and terrorism has evoked a high level of concern. India and some Asean members have been regularly holding both bilateral and group level naval exercises and maritime patrolling. India is gradually expanding to army-to-army level exercises with members such as Thailand. Singapore has been accorded an artillery firing range in India for practice. Air force-to-air force level exercises are expected to be the next level.  

India has the advantage of being a benign partner to Asean, considering that it has no territorial disputes with any of its member states. Neither is India perceived by any of the member states as posing a threat to them. India's discord with its maritime neighbor Indonesia over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the 1960s is long over. India's foreign policy towards the military junta-ruled Myanmar has been more pragmatic and Nay Pyi Taw has actually been cooperating with New Delhi with regard to use of its territory by Naga and other rebels from India's North-East. On its part, Asean would be interested in a more balanced relationship with major Asian economies, particularly with an assertive China fast attaining the label of a superpower. Some of the Asean members have territorial disputes with China over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. However, India will need to keep its act together, both economically and militarily and build significant indigenous capabilities in order to be taken seriously as a balancing force.

dkumar@tribunemail.com

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