Signalling an upsurge in India’s thriving ties with Southeast Asian countries, India has unveiled a slew of steps to galvanise relations with this economically vibrant region, which includes the setting up of an Indian mission to the ASEAN in Jakarta, and has sought to deepen strategic content of this increasingly important relationship.
Underlining the centrality of the ASEAN in the region to the future evolution of regional mechanisms, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh robustly backed the creation of an ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 and called for creating an inclusive regional architecture.
Speaking to leaders of the Southeast Asian countries at the 11th India-ASEAN summit in Brunei capital Bandar Seri Begawan October 10, Manmohan Singh stressed that “the growing strategic content in relations between India and ASEAN” is designed to address shared security challenges, including the scourge of trans-national terrorism. India and the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are now in the process of formulating a work plan to combat international terrorism.
The $200 billion gamble
As India and the ASEAN begin an eventful third decade in their engagement, Manmohan Singh announced that India was ready to sign the India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement on Services and Investment by the end of this year. The FTA in services will complement a similar pact on goods, and promises to have a force-multiplier effect on the burgeoning economic relationship between the two sides. The two sides are confident of scaling the India-ASEAN trade from $76 billion to $100 billion by 2015 and double that volume by 2022.
India also pushed for fast-tracking a host of connectivity projects that will quicken regional integration. The Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo sector of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway is progressing well – the completion of this project in 2016 is poised to create a new dynamic in India’s multi-faceted relations with the region. Manmohan Singh backed the extension of this highway to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, its further linkage with ports in ASEAN countries and its integration with models like Special Economic Zones. He also called for wrapping up negotiations for an ASEAN-India Transit Transport Agreement by 2015.
Underpinning this web of rail, road and maritime links is a soaring vision of an Asian century. India once again underscored the pivotal place of ASEAN in realising the vision of an Asian century. “Asia has been a late starter in terms of building regional architectures of cooperation. We have embarked on this collective journey in large part because of the outstanding vision and leadership of ASEAN, first in pursuing ASEAN integration and then expanding it to the wider region,” said Manmohan Singh. “We will be successful if we adhere to the principles of unity, cooperation and integration that have guided ASEAN and if ASEAN centrality continues to shape the East Asia Summit processes,” he said at the 18-nation East Asia summit in Brueni capital.
Security and Strategy
While trade and investment will remain the core of the India-ASEAN engagement, the two sides have opened new vistas of cooperation on security issues and imbued bilateral ties with the much-needed strategic depth. The festering tensions in the South China Sea have lent an added urgency to the strategic dimension of the relationship.
With the economies of India and the ASEAN growing and their energy needs going up, another area that is bound to bring the two sides closer is the pursuit of maritime security and enhanced cooperation in combating terrorism and piracy. India has consistently pitched for freedom of navigation, which has received across-the-board endorsement from ASEAN nations and East Asia.
South China Sea
At the 18-nation East Asia Summit, India welcomed the efforts towards the adoption of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea on the basis of consensus. “A stable maritime environment is essential to realize our collective regional aspirations. We should reaffirm the principles of maritime security, including the right of passage and unimpeded commerce, in accordance with international law, and peaceful settlement of maritime disputes,” said Manmohan Singh.
“We welcome the collective commitment by the concerned countries to abide by and implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and to work towards the adoption of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea on the basis of consensus.”
Sphere of Co-prosperity
Weaving a narrative of co-prosperity, the 11th ASEAN summit themed “Our People, Our Future Together” has raised the bar for India’s blossoming relations with the ASEAN and promises to bring fruits of revitalised engagement to 1.8 billion people, through greater trade and investment, freer movement of people and professionals and closer coordination over a host of regional and global challenges. Fittingly, Manmohan Singh encapsulated the growing importance of this mutually rewarding relationship when he said “the global economic crisis and turmoil in different parts of the world underscore the salience of our robust partnership.”
The Brunei summit built on substantive achievements of the special India-ASEAN summit New Delhi hosted in December 2012. At that summit, Manmohan Singh, an ardent proponent of “an arc of prosperity” across Asia, encapsulated the essence of what brings India and the ASEAN together when he said in his inaugural address at the summit that “Our shared values, convergent world views and similarities in approaches to the region should help us make the India-ASEAN relationship more comprehensive and elevate it to a Strategic Partnership for the next decade and beyond”. With so much at stake in building closer linkages, the India-ASEAN partnership is set to scale new heights in days to come.
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