India’s diplomatic engagements with the ASEAN members date back to the World War 2 era when India supported the independence of Indonesia and Myanmar and was a prominent participant at the 1955 Bandung Conference. India was also among the first countries to formally recognise Singapore and establish diplomatic relations with it – just 15 days after it became independent in August 1965. India’s bilateral relationship with ASEAN gathered momentum and accelerated in the early 90s when India was looking for new friends to fill the void left by the collapse of the Soviet Union and Southeast Asia appeared on the horizon as a promising destination.
Over the next decade, India’s equation with ASEAN changed from being just a friend to a strategic partner. In 2015, India set up a separate Mission to strengthen its ties with the grouping in Jakarta, where the ASEAN is headquartered. Subsequently, the leaders of all the ASEAN countries were invited to be the chief guests of India’s Republic Day parade in 2018. Since then, the relationship between the 1.35 billion people of India and the 650 million people of ASEAN has been soaring high, particularly in diverse areas like trade, investment, security, and defence.
Addressing the 18th Indo-ASEAN Summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “The year 2022 will mark the completion of 30 years of our partnership. India will also complete 75 years of its Independence. I am very glad that we will celebrate this important milestone as the ‘Year of ASEAN-India Friendship.”
“History is witness that India and ASEAN have had vibrant relations for thousands of years. Shades of that are visible in our shared values, traditions, languages, texts, architecture, culture, food and, therefore, the unity and centrality of ASEAN have always been an important priority for India,” he added.
Echoing almost similar sentiments External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar highlighted the importance of ties between India and ASEAN and the centrality of ASEAN to the Indo-Pacific.
“It is important that we — India, the ASEAN, and our relationship — we recognise that a different world awaits us. It is one that puts a greater premium on trust and transparency, resilience and reliability, as also on choices and redundancy,” he said.
“Our contemporary conversations will be relevant only if we adequately capture these emerging concerns,” he noted.
Areas of Convergence
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is one of the most influential groupings in the region, with India, the U.S.A, China, Japan, and Australia being its dialogue partners. ASEAN’s primary objective is to accelerate economic growth through social and cultural development and its secondary objective is to promote regional peace and stability based on the rule of law and the principles of the United Nations charter.
As far as India is concerned, ASEAN’s special status is embedded in India’s Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) and Act East Policy. India places ASEAN at the Centre of its Indo-Pacific vision of Security and Growth for All in the Region.
Southeast Asia is both geographically and strategically located in India’s extended neighborhood, almost at the centre of the Indo-Pacific. India and the ten ASEAN member-states –including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia are home to about two billion people, account for 30 percent of the world’s population, and a combined GDP of over $3.8 trillion.
India is one of ASEAN’s top trading and investment partners. ASEAN is the world’s fifth largest economy and is expected to become the fourth largest by 2030. India too is projected to be the world’s third largest economy by 2050. India and ASEAN have a free trade agreement.
ASEAN is a formidable economic force in the world today – with a promising future. The India-ASEAN trade has crossed $100 billion. This is a good sign but requires attention as over the years many ASEAN member-states have become more and more dependent on China for trade making them susceptible to Chinese bullying. All member states, except Singapore, have trade deficits with China today. This is where the role of the United States comes in. Significantly the USA has maintained its military presence in the region for decades, now China is fast catching up not only regionally, but globally as well.
The US-China show of strength in the South China Sea and Strait of Malacca is a matter of concern for many ASEAN nations. India too cannot afford to ignore it, as nearly 55% of India’s trade with the Indo-Pacific region passes through the South China Sea. It is in India’s interest to keep its trade routes safe and secure.
India and ASEAN share many common areas of concern on political and security issues. India has signed ‘strategic partnerships’ with four ASEAN countries, namely, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, and is a member of various ASEAN forums like the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is the main forum for security dialogue and India has been attending all its meetings since 1996 and actively participated in its activities.
The ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) is the highest defence consultative and cooperative mechanism in ASEAN. The ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) involving eight Dialogue Partners, collectively called ‘Plus Countries’, is yet another platform under the ASEAN framework to ensure peace and stability in the region. The ADMM-Plus meets annually to collectively deal with common security challenges facing the region.
India is one of the founding members of the East Asia Summit (EAS), another ASEAN-centred diplomatic forum comprising of 18 countries. The EAS is one of the most crucial components of the ASEAN framework, seeking to build an environment of strategic trust in the region.
At the 14th East Asia Summit in Bangkok Prime Minister Modi announced a new initiative for regional cooperation, known as the ‘Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative’ (IPOI), aimed at building new partnerships to create a secure and stable maritime domain in the region.
ASEAN would like to avoid being caught in tussle for power between the super-powers. Towards this end, ASEAN member-states signed the ‘Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone’ also known as the ‘Bangkok Treaty’ to keep the region free of nuclear and all other weapons of mass destruction. Today, Southeast Asia in spite of being surrounded by nuclear-weapon states continues to be one of the five NWFZs in the world.
The Indian Navy hosted the 11th edition of the multilateral naval exercise called ‘Exercise Milan’, off the coast of Vishakhapatnam, early this year, which saw the participation of over 40 countries, 26 ships, one submarine, and 21 aircraft. This year the U.S. Navy was among the participating nations while Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia have been participating in the exercise since 1995. India has also been conducting bilateral coordinated patrols with several ASEAN nations. Recently, the Philippines an ASEAN member signed a $375 million deal to buy ‘BrahMos’ missiles made in India to secure its coastal defence against growing Chinese hostility.
However, many ASEAN members themselves have differences of opinion on sensitive issues like the South China Sea, the Coup in Myanmar, human rights, narcotics trafficking, refugee flows, and terrorism. While Malaysia and Indonesia have been mounting pressure on ASEAN not to invite leaders of the ruling junta in Myanmar to important summits, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam are pushing ASEAN to do just the opposite.
Likewise, India and ASEAN too have differences of opinion on China which happens to be a geopolitical puzzle. While many ASEAN countries like Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam which have borne the brunt of China’s aggressive moves would like to avoid a pro-China tilt, Cambodia is favorably inclined and keeps blocking joint statements on the South China Sea.
ASEAN also does not like the idea of the US, Japan, Australia, and India, coming together to collectively form QUAD which is seen as ganging up against China. ASEAN does not want to be caught in a crossfire or entangled in a power struggle between the two dispensations in the Indo-Pacific region.
To put things in perspective, relations between India and ASEAN are good but not the best. The Indo-ASEAN relationship can grow from strength to strength and the future is bright– but it needs sustained efforts by both sides. This alone can improve goodwill and help strengthen the bonds of friendship between the governments and people on both sides.
-The writer is a seasoned media professional with over three decades of experience in print, electronic, and web media. He is presently Editor of Taazakhabar News. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda