India’s approach towards ASEAN is multi-dimensional as it views the regions of
Southeast Asia vis-à-vis ASEAN as vital strategic entities in its foreign policy
paradigm. India’s approach towards ASEAN was well articulated in Prime Minister
Dr Manmohan Singh’s opening statement at the Plenary Session of India-ASEAN
Commemorative Summit on December 20, 2012. He said: “We see our partnership with
ASEAN not merely as a reaffirmation of ties with neighbouring countries or as an
instrument of economic development, but also as an integral part of our vision
of a stable, secure and prosperous Asia and its surrounding Indian Ocean and
Pacific regions”. This perspective certainly explains not only India’s greater
awareness and vision towards ASEAN; but also delves upon India’s strategic
insights attached to this partnership.
One of the highlights of India-ASEAN growing partnership in recent years has
been the gadget of Delhi Dialogue. The fifth round of Delhi Dialogue was held
from February 19-20, and symbolised the new dynamics emerging and pushing the
India-ASEAN partnership to a new level. The Delhi Dialogue process has certainly
been an encouraging initiative, as it not only promotes institutional bonding
between India and ASEAN at the ground level; but also equally explains the
vitality of constant interactions and dialogue process that the two sides look
from each other at the regional level. The spirit and ethos of Delhi Dialogue V
was very similar to the spirits and sentiments that were expressed in
Commemorative Summit held in New Delhi in December 2012. Like previous
dialogues, the Delhi Dialogue V emphasised a range of issues; for instance; on
greater connectivity, trade and economic cooperation and deeper political and
security interactions, mainly in maritime affairs, between India and ASEAN.
These are indeed optimistic parts of India-ASEAN engagement; but the manner and
extent to which India and ASEAN can accommodate each other’s security interests,
mainly on maritime security issues, needs to be seen.
Strategic Partnership: A New Arrival?
The year 2012-13 is an important period in the India-ASEAN relationship. In
2012, India and ASEAN decided to upgrade their bilateral relations to a
‘strategic partnership’. Both sides expect this will be beneficial from the
regional perspective. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of India-ASEAN dialogue
partnership and the 10th anniversary of India-ASEAN summit-level partnership,
the two sides upgraded their relationship in a range of aspects. New thoughts
and spirits emerged to maximise the partnership on political, economic, cultural
and diplomatic issues. Yet, the most promising was security and maritime
Crafting maritime and security cooperation between India and ASEAN is certainly
a fresh idea. Earlier, the partnership was concentrated moreover trade and
economic cooperation. This ethos of pushing maritime cooperation between both
sides is encouraging particularly at a time when disputes in South China Sea and
East China Sea have become highlights of regional politics. But from India’s
perspective, there is enough scope for New Delhi to shape a well-crafted
maritime drive over this Southeast region through ASEAN. The Vision Statement of
the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit assures this in India’s favour. Under the
heading ‘Political and Security Cooperation’, the Vision Statement mentions that
both India and ASEAN ‘are committed to strengthening cooperation to ensure
maritime security and freedom of navigation, and safety of sea lines of
communication for unfettered movement of trade in accordance with international
law, including UNCLOS’. This is also relevant for India at a time when ASEAN is
eager to craft better maritime ties with India.Countries like Vietnam,
Philippines and Malaysia have been categorical in expressing their desire to see
India as a better placed maritime power in the region. The Vision Statement
explicitly states that there must be cooperation and engagement between India
and ASEAN through the ASEAN Maritime Forum to address various challenges in the
The spirit and fundamentals of the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit of December
2012 can become a basis for enlightened maritime politics in South-East Asia,
with significant reference to ‘freedom of navigation’. Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh had said, “TheVision Statement lays out a comprehensive roadmap for
political, security, economic, socio-cultural and development cooperation. It
imposes on us the responsibility to work diligently and innovatively to fulfill
the heightened expectations.” He also stated: “We have decided today to elevate
our relationship to a strategic partnership. This is a historic step, and
together with the conclusion of the negotiations on FTA in Services and
Investments, defines a qualitatively new paradigm of our friendship.” Under the
‘strategic partnership, there is ample scope for closer maritime cooperation
between the two sides.
Trade & Economy
In order to craft a more decisive policy in this regard, New Delhi must
capitalise on maximising trade and economic contacts with ASEAN. ASEAN is the
prime multilateral body that connects Asia’s three key regions together: South
Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia. The thrust has been to capitalise the
‘strategic partnership’ between the two; yet the trade and economic relationship
must be improved, as that has been the key of India-ASEAN relations so far.
Prime Minister Singh has called the India-ASEAN agreement ‘transformational’,
aimed at pushing India-ASEAN trade to almost $200 billion in the next decade;
setting a realistic trade target of a $100 billion by 2015. Trade contacts
between the two sides in the last one decade suggest that bilateral trade and
economics have been on ascendancy, mainly since the FTA has come into force
between the two sides (See Chart). While air and road infrastructure linkages
could be one viable way to maximise trade, the focus should also be on maritime
engagements. Bilateral trade and economic engagement between India and ASEAN has
been the hallmark of this relationship over the years. After signing of the FTA
in goods between India and ASEAN, bilateral trade increased massively to 41
percent in the year 2011-12, and touched the current figure of $80 billion.
India and ASEAN signed free trade agreements (FTA) on services and investment
during the Commemorative Summit last year.
Noting ASEAN Intent
ASEAN has also called for India to be forthcoming and promote intense
institutional cooperation on trade, economy and maritime security and to take a
more ‘decisive’ stance towards the region, including the South China Sea.
Previously, the President of Vietnam, Nguyen Tan Dung had asked for direct
intervention by India on the maritime issue. Similarly, the Prime Minister of
Thailand Yingluck Shinawatra stressed on closer India-ASEAN cooperation and
connectivity. She expressed the view that there should be intense cooperation
between the two sides on sea safety, disaster management, energy security, etc.
This is part of the general ASEAN thinking that there is a bigger role and space
for India to engage in the region more intensely and closely. In fact, the
highlight of the December 2012 summit was the statement by Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh, that “as maritime nations, India and ASEAN nations should
intensify their engagements for maritime security and safety, for freedom of
navigation and for peaceful settlement of maritime disputes in accordance with
international law.” This statement came against the background of rising
tensions in the South China Sea in the recent past. While Chinese assertiveness
over the South China Sea and East China Sea has been the centrality of most of
East vis-à-vis South-East Asian politics, China’s objection to India’s oil
exploration and commercial activities in the maritime region, mainly to joint
oil exploration activities with Vietnam, has been the highlight of regional
maritime politics in the recent past. In this context, the flagship event of
sending the shipping expedition INS Sudarshinito South-East Asia could mark the
beginning of this new maritime diplomacy.
Thrust on ASEAN+6 RCEP
Debates and dialogues across Asia continue over the process of East Asia
economic integration. These discussions continue in the backdrop of the US
‘pivot’ to Asia policy, and continuing tensions over disputes in South China Sea
and East China Sea disputes. The main thrust behind the East Asian economic
integration has been ASEAN+6 Agreement and the East Asian Summit (EAS); where
the aim is building a stable Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)
among countries in Asia. The ASEAN+6 RCEP is aimed at transforming the region by
higher economic growth through more cross-border trade and investment.
There is no dispute that ASEAN is the most important multilateral body in Asia,
which connects and brings together maritime politics of four important
sub-regions of Asia- South Asia, Southeast Asia, East Asia and Asia-Pacific.
Besides, ASEAN remain the gateway for Ocean politics in Asia, where the East
China Sea, South China Sea and Indian Ocean are closely linked with each other.
The volume and import of ASEAN is well known in regional vis-à-vis global
politics. More than ASEAN, it is the region of Southeast, with its political,
economic and maritime strength, that attracts many local, regional and global
powers to connect with it. In this regard, the main aim should be to integrate
the region more intensely through trade and economic engagements and
institutional bonding. The ASEAN+6 mechanism will not only help bring together
the extra-territorial economies to the region, but will also help in addressing
the maritime politics more intensely.
India would like to see the fulfilment of the ASEAN+6 RCEP as soon as possible.
This will help furthering the aims and objectives of India’s Look-East Policy.
RCEP will have huge trade potential. In real practice, RCEP once formalised,
will emerge as the most effective and largest free-trade bloc in the world. The
combined geo-political resources put this grouping in a totally different
league, making it the most important economic grouping of the world. It will
bring ten ASEAN countries and other six countries (China, Japan, South Korea,
India, Australia and New Zealand) together. These six members currently have
FTAs with ASEAN. The idea of RCEP negotiations is a new one; and was mainly
discussed during the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh (Cambodia) in November 2012.
The year 2012 was a key year for India-ASEAN relations. In this year, the
relationship will depend on how both parties maximise the ethos and sentiments
expressed in the December 2012 Commemorative Summit. During that summit, several
understandings, agreements and deals between India and ASEAN pushed the
Delhi Dialogue encourages the rising ‘institutionalisation’ process taking place
between both sides in recent times. While India-ASEAN annual summits have been
institutionalised; many sectorial and TRACK-II level dialogues have been
upgraded and advanced to the Ministerial consultation level meetings. The
ASEAN-India Eminent Persons report to the leaders (October 2012) notes that
there currently exist almost 25 dialogue and cooperative mechanisms between
India and ASEAN. Much will depend on how diligently and carefully both parties
push their bilateral relationship to a security and strategic partnership, and
address their mutual strategic interests and concerns that are centred on
maximising maritime bonding.