India and ASEAN look to deepen partnership : The Tribune India

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India and ASEAN look to deepen partnership

The context and current focus of the India-ASEAN Summit are the Indo-Pacific. PM Modi noted the special role of ASEAN in India’s Act East Policy and the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) as also in the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative. ASEAN is aware that India was a protagonist of the Quad’s focus on ASEAN centrality. Quad is not mentioned in the documents, but the collaboration is not restrained in any manner.

India and ASEAN look to deepen partnership

New fillip: ASEAN chairman, the Sultan of Brunei, focused on ties with India. Reuters



Gurjit Singh

Former Ambassador to ASEAN

The 18th India-ASEAN Summit was held virtually on October 28. It followed the ASEAN Summit of October 26 and the East Asia Summit on October 27. Prime Minister Modi participated in the summit, which he has been doing since 2014.

The summit focused on the gamut of activity, covering 30 mechanisms. The main emphasis was on the sturdy nature of Indo-ASEAN cooperation which was raised to a strategic partnership in 2012.

Strengthening this association remains the goal of the dialogue partnership between India and ASEAN. This is spelt out in the chairman’s statement by the Sultan of Brunei. Among various ideas which were discussed, some significant ones merit attention.

It was agreed to designate 2022 as the year of ASEAN-India Friendship. It will mark the completion of 30 years of the partnership and coincide with India’s 75th anniversary of Independence, which PM Modi drew attention to in his remarks.

Details will be worked out and a plethora of activity is anticipated. India is fortunate to have Singapore, among the most organised of ASEAN countries, as its country coordinator. The ASEAN chairman in 2022 will be Cambodia, whose president Hun Sen is well known to India ever since he assumed power. It is imperative that this landmark year is celebrated with imagination and contemporary domains so that repetition of past celebrations of anniversaries is avoided. It would be useful to focus on new areas.

Expansion of education, collaboration among universities, green economies, achieving the sustainable development goals (SDGs), start-ups and impact investment should be among the ideas to guide the expansion of the Indo-ASEAN partnership.

The Nalanda University, an EAS project, would welcome a collaboration with ASEAN. The offer of 1,000 PhD scholarships at IITs needs modulation to master’s level to allow greater utilisation.

There are adequate fora and meetings already in place. They need to be result- oriented and show achievements. All India-ASEAN activity is normally funded by the Indian contribution to the ASEAN and related funds. It would be a good occasion for the ASEAN to step up and contribute to the emerging programmes.

India-ASEAN projects need closer attention. The welcome establishment of a project monitoring unit within the ASEAN secretariat shows the intent to focus on implementation and achieving the goals set when these projects were undertaken.

Another area of focus is the pandemic and post-pandemic recovery. India has been working with ASEAN to support their facilities and provide material and monetary support. India’s contribution of $1 million to the Covid-19 ASEAN Response Fund was appreciated but the requirements are huge. With the reopening of vaccine exports, ASEAN countries would benefit. They would also benefit from the Quad vaccine initiative in a big way. It remains unclear whether ASEAN seeks a partnership or expects preferential treatment or donations to its public health arrangements.

The economic dimension of the partnership requires a review of the free trade agreement (FTA). The chairman’s statement mentioned the review of the ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) and ASEAN prefers to see ‘enhanced utilisation and effective implementation of the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area (AIFTA)’. This is important since India is not in the RCEP. It needs the FTA to be updated, balanced and contribute to the development of resilient supply chains between India and ASEAN.

India-ASEAN trade has been falling over the last 3 years from $97 billion in 2018, to $87 billion in 2019 and $79 billion in 2020. In the first half of 2021, it is only $42 billion. Its true potential is yet to be realised. ASEAN runs an average surplus of $20 billion. A reordering of the FTA and a better utilisation of it by the Indian companies could lead to expanded Indian exports, particularly through supply chains.

The context and current focus of the India-ASEAN Summit are the Indo-Pacific. PM Modi noted the special role of ASEAN in India’s Act East Policy and the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) as also in the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI). Along with the ASEAN’s Outlook for the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), these are the framework for the vision and mutual cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. ASEAN is aware that India was a protagonist of the Quad’s focus on ASEAN centrality and its functional collaboration with Quad countries, all of whom are dialogue partners (DPs) of ASEAN. Though the Quad is not mentioned in the documents, the collaboration is not restrained in any manner.

Significantly, a joint statement on cooperation on the AOIP for peace, stability and prosperity in the region was adopted. It builds on the Delhi Declaration of January 2018. This reaffirms that ASEAN centrality, openness, transparency, inclusivity and UNCLOS would all remain important aspects of partnership. All ASEAN members supported this.

The statement mentions four areas from the AOIP: Maritime cooperation, connectivity, SDGs and economic cooperation. As many as 21 paragraphs identify the areas of cooperation, including sub-regional cooperation, human capital development, green infrastructure, agriculture and the utilisation of complementarities.

The International Solar Alliance (ISA) is not mentioned among these 21 areas. Nor is the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Initiative (CDRI), with which no ASEAN member is associated. Only Myanmar and Cambodia are ISA members. Most ideas are promoted by the ASEAN. For a true partnership, ASEAN needs to participate in Indian initiatives which are wider in scope.

There is recognition of India’s contribution to narrowing the development gaps within ASEAN countries. India extended support to the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam) countries. ASEAN, in the spirit of partnership, could provide sustainable finance for the continuation of the centres which India has established. It is not necessary for India to consistently be like a donor. A transition to a fulsome partnership after 30 years is extremely important.

India announced support to ASEAN’s Cultural Heritage List. This is a nascent idea building on the Declaration on Cultural Heritage. ASEAN will create its own list of such assets. India’s prompt support will see officials’ meet soon to discuss collaboration. India has contributed to the restoration work in temples in Siem Reap and Yogyakarta. Given the shared histories and cultural roots of many South-East Asian civilisations, this could be impactful.

India and ASEAN have shared values and ideas. This relationship needs more substantive collaboration. The 30th anniversary is a good time to deepen the partnership.


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