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India And ASEAN Countries Vow To Improve Ties

To begin with, the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit 2018 in New Delhi witnessed the presence of the leaders of all ten member states of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) not just at the summit but also registered their strong presence by being invited by India as guest of honour at the Republic Day Parade. It deserves special mention here that the summit of 2018 was the 25th anniversary of the sectoral partnership, the 20th anniversary of the dialogue partnership and the fifth anniversary of the strategic partnership that was enunciated on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the commemorative summit in 2012. It is no ordinary feat that the leaders of all the ten ASEAN countries reiterated their firm resolve to strengthen further their relations with India which is now growing by leaps and bounds!
                                       Needless to say, the ties with ten ASEAN countries forms an important aspect of India’s foreign policy. New Delhi is leaving no stone unturned to ensure that it expands the strategic, trade and cultural ties with ASEAN countries. There are, in total, 30 dialogue mechanisms between India and ASEAN across various sectors.
                                    Before proceeding ahead, it must be known that who all are the heads of states who visited India as Chief Guest of ASEAN countries. They are – Nguyen Xuan Phuc who is PM of Vietnam, Najib Razak who is PM of Malaysia, Lee Hsien Loong who is PM of Singapore, Aung San Suu Kyi who is State Counsellor of Myanmar, Hun Sen who is PM of Cambodia, Prayut Chan-Ocha who is PM of Thailand, Joko Widodo who is President of Indonesia, Thongloun Sisoulith who is PM of Laos who assumed office in February 2016, Rodrigo Duterte who is President of Philippines and Hassanal Bolkiah who is Sultan of Brunei and also as PM is head of the government. Hassanal prior to Bill Gates was the richest man in the world. He is also believed to be the longest-reigning monarch in the world. It was in 1994 that the then Indian PM PV Narasimha Rao had invited Singapore ‘s PM Goh to be the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day Parade and now 24 years later the heads of all 10 ASEAN countries have come together to India which clearly vindicates that a lot of water has flown under the bridge since then!
                                                It cannot be lost on us that India and ASEAN nations together account for 1.85 billion people which implies that it covers about 30 percent of the global population and have a combined GDP of approximately $5.1 trillion. Taken together, India and ASEAN would form the third largest economy in the world. Therefore, it becomes all the more important for both India and ASEAN countries to cooperate together for mutual benefit.
                                     It is noteworthy that Indonesia is the biggest constituent of the grouping in terms of economic output. The GDP of ASEAN countries (in US $ mn at current prices) in total as in 2016 is 2,559,463 and of countries are as mentioned here – Lao PDR 15,903, Cambodia 19,194, Myanmar 68,636, Vietnam 198,196, Singapore 296, 977, Malaysia 299,632, Philippines 311,453, Brunei Darussalam 11,206, Indonesia 931,216 and Thailand 407,048. India has now made the right move in stepping up on the gas and pulling out all the stops to further enhance bilateral ties with all the 10 countries of ASEAN just mentioned above. This is truly commendable!  
                                    While craving for the exclusive indulgence of my esteemed readers, let me also inform them that approximately 12.5% of investment flows into India comes from ASEAN. Also, the FDI inflow to India between April 2000 to August 2017 is $ 514.7 billion and outflow from India is $38.7 billion. India rightly intends to enhance this figure much higher and the ASEAN countries too are keen that this figure goes further up as there is a lot of scope for further improvement in trade ties! 
                                         For my esteemed readers exclusive indulgence, let me also inform them that the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multimodal Project connecting India and Myanmar are in progress. It must also be noted that a possible extension of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway to Cambodia, Lao PDR and Vietnam is currently under consideration. This will certainly benefit all the countries collectively and so this possible extension must be completed at the earliest.
                                                It is noteworthy that in 2009, India announced a contribution of $50 million to the ASEAN-India Fund to support the implementation of the ASEAN-India Plans of Action for deepening ties across economic and socio-cultural spheres. It also cannot be missed out that projects worth approximately $48 million are under various stages of implementation or processing. The other sector specific funds between India and ASEAN are – ASEAN-India Science & Technology Development Fund (AISTDF) and ASEAN-India Green Fund. 
                                           To be sure, China’s trade with ASEAN is certainly right now bigger than India’s. But this does not mean that India cannot leave behind China in the near future. India must exert all its influence to further strengthen bilateral ties with all the 10 ASEAN countries and I am sure that they too will appreciate that India is far less aggressive than China and much more dependable ally which never intends to occupy the territory of any other country unlike China which can never be trusted under any circumstances!
                                        But for this to happen, India will have to really work very hard in this direction. It is here that the laudable move by the Modi government to invite all the 10 ASEAN countries as Chief Guests at the Republic Day Parade is most significant. But a lot of groundwork still remains to be done. In 2006, China’s export to ASEAN countries was 8.6% and India’s export was 2.6%. In 2006, China’s import to ASEAN countries was 11.5% and India’s was 1.5%. In 2016, China’s export to ASEAN countries was 12.5% and India’s export was 3.3%. Now coming to imports in 2016, China’s import share was 20.7% and India’s import share was 1.9%.  
                                          Honestly speaking, India lags far behind China in its trade relations with ASEAN. The India-ASEAN trade is currently only US$71 billion and has been declining regularly since reaching a peak of US$80 billion in 2011-12. In contrast, the ASEAN-China trade is US$450 billion. This is the real difference between India and China. In 2016 India invested US$1 billion in ASEAN as compared to US$10 billion by China. It is only Singapore alone which is a large investor in India and is credited with a cumulative total of about US$30 billion which constitutes more than 98% of the ASEAN total.
                                                  It is a matter of grave concern that among ASEAN’s trade partners, India ranks low at 7th way behind China, Japan, USA, Australia, South Korea and the European Union. This despite the glaring fact that ASEAN countries are its immediate neighbouring countries and still India is seventh in investments which must be addressed as it has been long neglected and it is China which has gained most at our cost! The bilateral trade went up from $2 billion in 1992 to $12 billion in 2002 and then jumped high to $72 billion in 2012.
                                         There is no reason why it can’t still further jump very high if leaders of India and ASEAN resolve to collectively and unitedly work in this direction henceforth! It is disappointing that a two-way target of $100 billion that was set by the 25th anniversary of the bilateral relationship in 2012 could not be achieved and the figure that could be achieved was just $76 billion! But that does not mean that future cannot be changed to our delight if India and ASEAN countries implement on what they have vowed to work together and cooperate in all fields and increase the investment level considerably as also increase the business ties to new heights!
                                              It must be divulged here that in his meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc who was the first to arrive for the India-ASEAN summit, PM Modi discussed with him maritime cooperation and defence ties. The two countries signed two Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) in the field of information and broadcasting and space cooperation. External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said in a tweet that, “Long standing traditional & strategic partnership! PM@narendramodi met with Vietnamese PM Nguyen Phuc. Discussed cooperation in trade and investment, defence, maritime & other areas.”
                                                 It must also be divulged here that Vietnam is one of the claimants of the South China Sea of which more than 90% is claimed by China. In other words, both countries – India and Vietnam have a common and powerful adversary – China and so must cooperate in all respects to outmanoeuvre the latter in all possible ways! The other ASEAN countries such as the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei also have overlapping claims to the waters of the South China sea with China.
                                        According to Indian officials, maritime cooperation is an area of key focus in the summit. It is the theme of the summit’s retreat along with security. The other MoU that was signed was for implementing an arrangement between the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the National Remote Sensing Department of Vietnam to establish a tracking and a data processing facility in Vietnam under the ASEAN-India space cooperation. The MoU will also define the framework and conditions of cooperation to establish a facility to provide Indian remote sensing satellite data over the ASEAN region to enable remote sensing applications, which include natural resources management, ocean development and disaster management by member states.
                                               Let me hasten to add here that President Ram Nath Kovind asserted that India-Vietnam relations are on an upward curve and said the two countries need to enhance cooperation in oil and gas sector. Kovind while welcoming Vietnamese PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc who had called on him at Rashtrapati Bhavan said that, “We need to redouble our efforts to reach the target of USD 15 billion in bilateral trade by 2020.” He said India remains committed to encouraging its industry to explore investment opportunities in Vietnam in pharma, solar, education and other sectors. He said that, “We also need to enhance cooperation in the oil and gas sector, including through trilateral cooperation with friendly countries.” Kovind while welcoming him also said that, “India is delighted to host him as a guest of honour at the Republic Day celebration.” On India celebrating 25 years of its partnership with ASEAN, Kovind said that, “This makes his presence even more special. Vietnam is a preferred partner for India in ASEAN.”
                                             Interestingly enough, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who is co-chair of the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit said that, “We believe that India makes a major contribution to regional affairs, helping to keep the regional architecture open, balanced and inclusive.” Loong also remarked that, “India has set a goal of establishing 100 smart cities. Singapore, an urbanised city-state, is ready to partner on this journey and help develop urban solutions based on our own experience. Andhra Pradesh’s new capital city of Amaravati is one example.” Very rightly said!
                                             It is indisputable that India has a lot to learn from Singapore and gain from it in many ways. Singapore has played a very crucial role in India’s closer integration with ASEAN. We should never forget this!
                             Going forward, Loong said that, “It is an honour for all the ASEAN leaders to be in New Delhi for this occasion. ASEAN leaders are also deeply honoured to be invited as chief guests at tomorrow’s 69thRepublic Day Parade. He also rightly pointed out that, “ASEAN and India’s combined population of 1.8 billion represents one quarter of the world’s population. Our combined GDP exceeds $4.5 trillion. By 2025, India’s consumer market is expected to become the fifth largest in the world, while in southeast Asia middle-class households will double to 163 million. Both regions are also experiencing a demographic dividend – 60% of ASEAN’s population is below 35 years old, while India is projected to be the world’s youngest country with an average of 29 by 2020. ASEAN and India also have fast-growing internet user bases, which will help us grow the digital economy. Against this backdrop, we still have much scope to grow our ties – India accounted for only 2.6% of ASEAN’s external trade in 2016.”
                                           It cannot be disputed that Loong rightly suggested that, “First, ASEAN and India should redouble efforts to promote trade and investment. We need to keep existing pathways up to date and relevant, including the  ASEAN-India Free Trade Area (AIFTA). We should work together to conclude a high quality Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), surpassing the existing AIFTA. This would create an integrated Asian market comprising nearly half the world’s population and a third of the world’s GDP. Streamlining rules and regulations will stimulate investments in both directions, complement India’s ‘Act East’ policy and facilitate ‘Made in India’ exports to the region. Second, our people will benefit greatly from greater land, air and maritime connectivity. We appreciate India’s efforts to improve land connectivity including the extension of the trilateral India-Myanmar-Thailand Highway and India’s $1 billion line of credit to promote infrastructure connectivity with ASEAN. We look forward to working closely with India to boost our physical connectivity, including by expeditiously concluding the ASEAN-India Air Transport Agreement. This will enhance people-to-people Indian and ASEAN carriers tap new and emerging markets, especially for business, investment and tourism. Digital connectivity is another important area of cooperation, and can shape people-to-people connections for the future. India’s Aadhaar system creates many new opportunities, for instance, to harmonise our Fintech platforms or connect e-payment systems.”
                                           It is remarkable that the highest-level of participation at the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit to mark the 25 years of Indo-ASEAN ties comes in the backdrop of increasing Chinese economic and military assertiveness in the region. India’s influence as a powerful counterbalance to China cannot be discounted by anyone. This alone explains why these 10 ASEAN countries too seek to play a long innings with India and cooperate with us in all possible respects!  
                                         To say the least, India is working tirelessly on its Act East Policy which strongly pushes for strengthening ties with the 10 ASEAN countries with emphasis on three Cs – connectivity, commerce and culture. India is also working actively on boosting connectivity with South East Asia by land, air and sea and a trilateral highway connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand, the work of which is still in progress and is a key part of it. India-ASEAN trade stands at over $70 billion trade and the two sides are also negotiating a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The RCEP is a proposed Free Trade Area (FTA) between the 10 ASEAN countries and the six countries with which ASEAN has FTAs – Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. India has a special bond with South East Asian countries as Buddhism and the Indian epic Ramayana is common in most of these countries even though most of the South East Asian nations have their own version of Ramayana.
                                              Be it noted, there are more than 400 flights that operate in a week between different Indian cities and Singapore. However, there are just 200 flights a week with Thailand and Malaysia respectively. What is most concerning that there is still no direct flight between India and the largest and the most important country in ASEAN – Indonesia but I am sure that this can be rectified by both the countries acting in tandem for which due initiative must be taken in this regard. Similarly we also seriously observe how there are regular shipping links between Indian ports and that of Singapore and Klang in Malaysia but with other countries we either have few or not even a single shipping link with the other ports in the region. This must be addressed and cannot be left unaddressed!
                                       To be sure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing the leaders of the ASEAN countries at the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit said that security and freedom of navigation will be in the heart of India-ASEAN cooperation in the twenty-first century. Modi also said that, “Humanitarian and disaster relief efforts, security cooperation and freedom of navigation will be the key focus areas for our maritime cooperation.” The leaders also agreed on establishing a joint mechanism to ensure safety and freedom of navigation in the maritime domain.
                                          Simply put, the statement on the maritime mechanism is significant as it is the first time that India has taken up forming of a special maritime mechanism with all the ASEAN heads of states at a single summit. A joint statement that was issued after the plenary session of the Commemorative Summit stated that maritime security and freedom of navigation featured prominently in the ‘Delhi Declaration’. The declaration indicated at common concern pertaining to the South China Sea and reaffirmed the “importance of maintaining and promoting peace, stability, maritime safety and security, freedom of navigation and overflight in the region and other lawful uses of the seas and unimpeded lawful maritime commerce.”
                                       No doubt, just like the presence of US President Barack Obama as the Chief Guest at Republic Day in 2015 sent a signal to the rest of the world, the ASEAN leaders participation has a resonance of its own and the whole world has taken notice of this also. Former Ambassador K Shankar Bajpai said that, “As far as India is concerned, we have a tradition to invite a guest of honour as chief guest for the Republic Day parade of 26 January. But so far we have not done something like inviting 10 leaders for a diplomatic engagement on this day.” Former External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh also while welcoming the hosting of 10 chief guests at the Republic Day Parade said that it is a unique event. He said that, “We have hosted multiple heads of states as in 1983 when we hosted the NAM summit and more recently in the India-Africa Summit. But this event is unique as it comes in the context of major changes in the regional order.”
                                     It is heartening to note that Delhi Declaration has called for joint fight against terror. The ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit also came out with a comprehensive statement targeting terrorism and agreed to uphold freedom in the maritime domain. Focusing on the presence of the Islamic State and other forms of radicalism in the region, a joint statement, titled ‘Delhi Declaration’, issued after the plenary session, supported a common approach to counter terrorism and sought a “comprehensive approach to combat terrorism through close cooperation by disrupting and countering terrorists, terrorist groups and networks, including by countering cross border movement of terrorists and foreign terrorist fighters and misuse of Internet including social media by terror entities.”
                                             It is beyond a straw of doubt that out of all the countries of ASEAN region, Philippines had the most serious threat from the Islamic State in the last few years and the bilateral discussion focused on this aspect. Preeti Saran who is Secretary in charge of Eastern Affairs while highlighting the support that Philippines received from India to counter the Islamic State terrorists who had taken over the city of Marawi in Philippines where a battle was waged by the Philippines military forces said that, “President Duterte conveyed his deepest appreciation for the $500,000 assistance that was provided by India to resettle victims of the Marawi siege.” A joint working group meeting is likely to be held between the two countries to finalise details of counter-terror cooperation between Delhi and Manila.
                                           Of course, the issue of security identity cards for the citizens, on the lines of the Aadhaar card of India also came up during the bilateral discussion with Philippines. Ms Saran said that, “A team from Philippines was here last week to study the Aadhaar card of India.” It is great to note that Philippines too has been greatly influenced by the Aadhaar card of India and wants to start it after studying it in India and understanding it comprehensively.
                                           It must be underlined here that the security scenario in the Rakhine province was also discussed between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Aung San Suu Kyi who is the State Counsellor of Myanmar and Modi conveyed his concern on the huge security challenges confronted by India in the wake of the influx of thousands of Rohingyas refuges to India since last few years! Both sides discussed the housing project that India would build to rehabilitate the Rohingyas. India is serious in building houses for Rohingyas but wants them to go back to Myanmar.
                                        After the meeting between Modi and Suu Kyi, Raveesh Kumar tweeted, “The two leaders had a productive discussion on intensifying bilateral cooperation, including a follow up on key decisions taken during PM’s visit to Myanmar in September 2017.” The meeting came nearly a month after India and Myanmar inked an agreement on restoration of normalcy and development of the Rakhine state and days after Bangladesh and Myanmar agreed on repatriation of Rohingyas. Signed during Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar’s visit to Myanmar, the pact was the first government-to-government agreement by Myanmar with a cooperation focused on socio-economic development in the Rakhine state.
                                    It must be added here that India and Cambodia signed four agreements ranging from prevention of human trafficking, Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters to Culture. In addition, India will provide soft loans through Line of Credit (LoC) to finance the ‘Stung Sva Hab Water Resource Development Project’ worth $36.92 million. The two countries have also decided to strengthen their defence cooperation through capacity building and exchanges of senior level personnel.
                                       Apart from this, India will also help set up a Centre for IT excellence in Cambodia. The two sides also agreed on a $20 million concessional LoC by India for construction of transmission line in Cambodia. India has offered additional LoC for infrastructural projects in Cambodia, including in health sector for setting up of super speciality hospitals and for road, rail and digital connectivity.
                                       To put things in perspective, this is the first visit by a Cambodian PM in the last ten years. PM Modi and Cambodia’s PM Hun Sen agreed to explore the possibility of extending the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway further to Cambodia and beyond. In his joint statement, Modi said that there was an agreement on strengthening relations in every sector.
                                        Not stopping here, Modi also said that, “India and Cambodia will build up on relations in every field, including economic, social development, capacity building, business, culture and tourism. We are ready to further strengthen our relations with Cambodia in the coming future.” On his part, Sen appreciated India’s LoC and grants-in-aid for developmental projects in Cambodia, restoration and conservation of temples, capacity building programmes, scholarships and funding for social development through Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) under Mekong Ganga Cooperation initiative. India would increase the number of QIPs from 5 to 10 annually in Cambodia.
                                        It is imperative to mention here that Modi also mentioned Archaeological Survey of India’s efforts in the restoration on Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm Temples in Cambodia. Modi also said that it is part of their joint cultural heritage and an example of cooperation between both nations. Besides, he also reaffirmed India’s commitment to undertake restoration and conservation work at the ancient temple of Lord Shiva at Preah Vihar.
                                        In their joint statement, both sides expressed interest in enhancing cooperation in maritime domain. The joint statement said that, “They support complete freedom of navigation and overflight and pacific resolution of maritime issues based on international law, notably the 1982 UNCLOS.” On terrorism, they called upon all nations to adopt a comprehensive approach in combating terrorism, which should include countering radicalisation, recruitment, movement of terrorists, including foreign terrorist fighters. They called for blocking sources of financing terrorism supply of weapons of mass destruction, drug trafficking and other criminal activities besides dismantling terrorist bases, and countering misuse of the internet including social media and information and communication technologies by terrorist entities.
                                                Describing terrorism as a “curse” on humankind which poses a “grave threat” to global peace, security and stability, the leaders unequivocally and unanimously condemned terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. According to a joint statement, they underscored that there was no justification whatsoever for acts of terrorism and recognized that terrorism could not be and should not be associated with any religion, nationality, civilization or ethnic groups. Reaffirming their resolve to fight terrorism, the two leaders affirmed that those responsible for committing, abetting, organising and supporting terrorist acts must be held accountable and be punished.
                                It must be appreciated here that in separate meetings, leaders from Vietnam, Philippines and Myanmar “underscored the importance of ASEAN-India relations for peace, security and socio-economic development in the Indo-Pacific region”. Indian President Ram Nath Kovind who hosted the leaders for a luncheon, said that India stands “shoulder-to-shoulder” with ASEAN in pursuit of a rules-based regional architecture that is open, inclusive and equitable. PM Modi also conveyed that, “ASEAN is the fulcrum of India’s Act-East policy”.
                                    It needs no rocket scientist to conclude that relations between India and ASEAN have come a long way in the last 25 years! The highest culminating point has been the presence of all the 10 ASEAN leaders as chief guests in the Republic Day Parade. It is for the first time that the ASEAN flag fly in the sky over Rajpath on 26 January, 2018.
                                     It must be highlighted here that in an unprecedented move to promote India-ASEAN ties under New Delhi’s Act East Policy, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced prior to the announcement of the Republic Day Awards that Padma Shri which is India’s fourth highest civilian award would be awarded to one achiever from each of the regional bloc’s 10 member states. Stating that “in an unprecedented and symbolic gesture” of India-ASEAN bonding and on the occasion of silver jubilee of the India-ASEAN Dialogue Partnership and India’s Republic Day, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Raveesh Kumar tweeted that Modi “announced Padma Shri award for one individual from each ASEAN country”. Those achievers who have been named for the award ahead of the Republic Day Parade are – Haji Abdullah Bin Malai Haji Othman of Brunei for medicine, Hun Many of Cambodia for public affairs, Nyoman Nuarta of Indonesia for art, Bounlap Keokangna of Laos for art; Thant Myint-U of Myanmar for public affairs, Jose Ma Joey Concepcion of the Philippines for trade and industry, Tommy Koh of Singapore for public affairs, Somdet Phra Ariya Wongsa Khottayan of Thailand who is the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand and Nguyen Tien Thien of Vietnam who is the Secretary General of the National Vietnam Buddhist Sangha.  
                                            All said and done, the visit of all these 10 ASEAN leaders to India was very fruitful and historic. PM Narendra Modi thanked all of them for coming to India and they too expressed their gratitude for inviting them as chief guest at the prestigious Republic day parade. A lot of ground has been covered in the relations between India and ASEAN but still a lot more remains to be done and they have all collectively appreciated this and vowed to further improve the relations between them and take them to greater heights!
Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate,
s/o Col BPS Sirohi,
A 82, Defence Enclave,
Sardhana Road, Kankerkhera,
Meerut – 250001, Uttar Pradesh.