Looking East and Beyond

Spotlight

At the Delhi Dialogue VII in March 2015, India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said, “ASEAN lies at the core of India’s Act East Policy and at the centre of our dream of an Asian century. Since the launch of our Look East Policy in the early 1990s, we have matured from being Sectoral Dialogue Partners to Strategic Partners.” Clearly, the strategic partnership between India and ASEAN constitutes a significant factor in realising India’s regional power projection guided by the Indo-Pacific doctrine. Dr Vannarith Chheang understands how India and ASEAN can work together to further deepen this strategic partnership through the implementation of the 2010-2015 Plan of Action

After coming to power in May 2014, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reshaped and emboldened India’s foreign policy, making it more proactive and pragmatic. Modi’s ambition is for India to become one of the pillars providing peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. India’s bilateral relations with all major powers have advanced since, particularly with the United States, China, Russia, and Japan. Bilateral partnerships with Southeast Asian countries have also gained new momentum.

At the India-ASEAN Summit in November 2014, Modi revamped India’s “Look East Policy” to “Act East Policy”. India has shown stronger interest and commitment in deepening economic relations and building closer strategic and security ties with Southeast Asia.

“ASEAN lies at the core of India’s Act East Policy and at the centre of our dream of an Asian century. Since the launch of our Look East Policy in the early 1990s, we have matured from being Sectoral Dialogue Partners to being Strategic Partners,” stated India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj at the Delhi Dialogue VII in March 2015.

Infrastructure Connectivity

Poor links in regional infrastructure are the main constraints in regional economic integration. Infrastructure developments and connections between India and mainland Southeast Asia have improved since the 2000s began. There are four infrastructure connections namely: the Mekong-India Economic Corridor; Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project; India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway: and Delhi-Hanoi Railway Link. In addition, India has financed and constructed the $120 million Sittwe Port in Myanmar as part of the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Network.

The Mekong-India Economic Corridor involves integrating four countries (Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam) with India. It connects Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) with Dawei (Myanmar) via Bangkok (Thailand) and Phnom Penh (Cambodia) and further links to Chennai in India. The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway links Moreh (India) with Mae Sot (Thailand) through Bagn (Myanmar). The alignment of this trilateral highway falls within the Asian Highways 1 and 2.

Economic Cooperation and ‘Make in India’ Campaign

Deepening regional economic integration and connectivity between India and ASEAN serves India’s economic development strategy and its trade promotion policy. The ‘Make in India’ strategy is the core economic policy initiated by Modi, aiming at creating more jobs in the manufacturing sector and transforming India into a global manufacturing powerhouse. The strategy focuses on a wide range of sectors including automobiles, aviation, biotechnology, chemicals, construction, defence manufacturing, electrical machinery, electronic systems, food processing, information technology, pharmaceuticals, renewable energy, textiles and garments.

ASEAN, with a population of more than 600 million and a total GDP hovering around $3 trillion, is a potential market for Indian products and services. Bilateral trade has increased after the signing of the ASEAN-India Free Trade Agreement in 2010. In 2014, the bilateral trade volume was around $80 billion and is expected to reach $100 billion by 2015, and $200 billion by 2022. Investment flow between India and ASEAN has increased over the years. ASEAN investments in India over the last eight years amounted to $27.9 billion, while Indian investments in ASEAN reached $32.4 billion.

Maritime Security Cooperation

India’s proactive approach in the development and promotion of the maritime doctrine called the ‘Indo-Pacific Security’ will enable India to expand its maritime power both in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Strengthening security and strategic ties with Japan, US, Australia, and ASEAN underline this new doctrine.

Maritime security cooperation is one of the core elements in building the strategic partnership between India and ASEAN. India intends to play a more active role through both bilateral and multilateral dialogues and mechanisms, to maintain the freedom of navigation and good order at sea in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

With regard to India’s position in the South China Sea, Anil Wadhwa, Secretary of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, in early 2014 stated, “Our position has always been that India stands for freedom of navigation on high seas. We would like to ensure that all countries in the region adhere to the international conventions on the law of the sea in this issue.” At the India-ASEAN Summit in 2014, Modi called for the conclusion of the legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea.

India has strengthened defence ties with Vietnam, one of the claimants in the South China Sea. During a visit to Vietnam in late October 2014, Modi announced that India would implement a $100 million defence credit line to Vietnam. The credit aims to enable Hanoi to acquire four offshore naval patrol vessels to improve Vietnam’s surveillance and maritime domain awareness. 

Addressing Non-Traditional Security Issues

At the 17th ASEAN-Senior Officials’ Meeting on March 14, 2015, ASEAN and Indian senior officials agreed to address and combat non-traditional security issues, including terrorism, violent extremism, drugs and other forms of trans-national crime. Cyber security, cross-border migration, and climate change-energy-water-food security nexus must be included as well. Capacity building, institutional coordination, information sharing, and collective responses should be the main areas of India-ASEAN cooperation.

Ways Forward

Under the current leadership, India has shown greater interest and commitment in engaging Southeast Asia and the Asia Pacific. The strategic partnership between India and ASEAN constitutes a significant factor in realising India’s regional power projection guided by the Indo-Pacific doctrine.

India and ASEAN need to work together to further deepen their strategic partnership through the implementation of the 2010-2015 Plan of Action. In the post-2015 cooperation period, India and ASEAN will develop the 2016-2020 Plan of Action, and establish the ASEAN-India Centre and an ASEAN-India Trade and Investment Centre.

Meanwhile, India and ASEAN may also consider working together to realise the United Nations Development Goals focusing on eradicating poverty in all its dimensions and addressing inequality; tackling climate change and achieving more sustainable lifestyles; building strong, inclusive and resilient economies; promoting peaceful societies and strong institutions; and a renewed global partnership and adequate means of implementation.

Most importantly, India needs to have enough resources available to deliver the results of its ‘Act East’ policy. India should aim high and include the ‘Responsibility to Implement’ in the India-ASEAN Plan of Action 2016-2020.

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