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Insights into Editorial: The arc to Southeast Asia

Insights into Editorial: The arc to Southeast Asia


This week India will host heads of state or government of all 10 nations (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for the Republic Day celebrations in a dramatic declaration of intent by New Delhi to boost India’s ties with Southeast Asia.

ASEAN and India: 25 years and beyond 

While we commemorate 25 years of ASEAN -India relations, India’s ties with Southeast Asia date back more than 2,000 years.

Ancient trade between India and countries such as Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand is well-documented. Southeast Asian cultures, traditions and languages have been profoundly influenced by these early linkages.

Indic Hindu-Buddhist influences seen in historical sites such as the Angkor Temple Complex near Siem Reap in Cambodia,  Borobudor and Prambanan temples near Yogyakarta in Indonesia.

  • India became an ASEAN Sectoral Dialogue Partner in 1992, a full ASEAN Dialogue Partner in 1995, and participated in the East Asia Summits (EAS) from 2005.
  • The EAS is a key component of an open, inclusive and robust regional architecture, and the region’s main strategic Leaders-led forum.
  • ASEAN -India relations were further elevated to a strategic partner-ship in 2012, the 20th anniversary of ASEAN -India relations.
  • Today, ASEAN and India enjoy multi-faceted cooperation across ASEAN‘s political-security, economic and socio-cultural pillars.
  • Government’s ‘Act East’ policy and 3-C (Commerce, Connectivity, Culture) formula for strengthening engagement with ASEAN speaks to our broad-based cooperation.

India has participated actively in ASEAN -led platforms including the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus, and the East Asia Summit.

  • With the ASEAN -India Free Trade Area (AIFTA), ASEAN -India trade has risen steadily from US$2.9 billion in 1993 to US$70 billion in 2016-17 after a period of stagnant growth due to global slowdown of trade.
  • On the socio-cultural front, programmes like the ASEAN -India Students Exchange Programmes and the annual Delhi Dialogue foster closer people-to-people relations.
  • Delhi Dialogue is a premier annual track 1.5 event since 2009 to discuss politico-security and economic issues between ASEAN and India. (Track 1.5 to denote a situation in which official and non-official actors work together to resolve conflicts.)

To mark this Silver Jubilee of ASEAN -India relations, both sides have held many commemorative activities. The recent Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Singapore recognised the contributions of the Indian diaspora.

Why 2017 is a landmark year for India, ASEAN ties?

The year 2017 was an important landmark as India and the ASEAN commemorated 25 years of their partnership, 15 years of summit-level interaction, and five years of strategic partnership.

To observe India’s connections nurtured with ASEAN in the past 25 years, New Delhi is planning a series of events which include signing of an air services agreement, a car rally and a maritime expedition by Indian naval ships to the region.

The ASEAN flag will fly in the sky over Rajpath for the first time this Republic Day as 10 leaders of the grouping will attend the glittering function, which will showcase India’s military might.

Cultural groups from the 10 member-nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations staged musicals and plays based on the epic at the festival celebrating the India-ASEAN dialogue. The festival seeks to highlight the common cultural heritage and India’s friendship with ASEAN nations.

India’s bid to accentuate its links with ASEAN comes at a time of flux in the region with China seen as growing more assertive vis-a-vis its territorial claims in the oil and gas-rich South China Sea.

ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit

ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit in India held at New Delhi on the theme “Shared Values, Common Destiny”

  • The focus of the Summit will be on counter-terrorism, security and connectivity.
  • The highest-level of participation at the meeting will mark 25 years of Indo-ASEAN ties.
  • The meet can be an opportunity for India to present itself as a powerful ally to these countries in the strategic areas of trade and connectivity.

The Need for ASEAN-India Cooperation

Major global trends are reshaping the strategic outlook, presenting both challenges and opportunities. The strategic balance is shifting. Demographic, cultural and political changes are underway in many parts of the world.

The consensus on globalisation and free trade is fraying, but the Asian story continues to be a positive one. The geopolitical uncertainty gives new impetus to ASEAN’s cooperation with key partners like India.

  • ASEAN and India share common interests in peace and security in the region, and an open, balanced and inclusive regional architecture.
  • India is located strategically along major sea-lanes from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific. These sea lanes are also vital trade routes for many ASEAN Member States. Both sides share an interest in preserving these vital maritime conduits of trade.
  • ASEAN and India’s combined population of 1.8 billion represents one quarter of the world’s population. Our combined GDP exceeds US$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 per cent of ASEAN’s population is below 35 years old, while India is projected to be the world’s youngest country with an average age of 29 by 2020.
  • ASEAN and India also have fast-growing internet user bases, which will help us to grow the digital economy.

Against this backdrop, we still have much scope to grow our ties – India accounted for only 2.6 per cent of ASEAN’s external trade in 2016.


There has been a sense of disillusionment on both sides about the present state of play in the relationship.

India’s capacity to provide development assistance, market access and security guarantees remains limited and ASEAN’s inclination to harness New Delhi for regional stability remains circumscribed by its sensitivities to other powers.

The interests and expectations of the two sides remain far from aligned, preventing them from having candid conversations and realistic assessments.

Though the government’s ‘Act East’ policy is aimed at enhancing India’s strategic profile in East and Southeast Asia, New Delhi’s main focus remains on South Asia and the Indian Ocean region.

India’s economic focus too is not in tune with other regional powers which view ASEAN as an important market for exports and investments. India’s export sector remains weak and the government’s focus has shifted to boosting manufacturing domestically.

The Need of the Hour:

It is important for India and ASEAN to chart out a more operational, though modest, agenda for future cooperation.

Economically, India needs to develop connectivity with the region so that economic complementarities can be fully realised. Military, India needs to evolve into a robust security provider in the region. Diplomatically, it needs a sustained outreach. Culturally, it needs to build on the shared cultural linkages.

  1. Redouble efforts to promote trade and investment
  • We need to keep existing pathways up to date and relevant, including the 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.


  1. Focus on connectivity:
  • People will benefit greatly from greater land, air and maritime connectivity. New Delhi now needs to focus on more effective delivery of projects it is already committed to.
  • Prompt completion of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, which will run from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar, is the key.
  • The plan is to extend this highway to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in an attempt to project India’s role in the emerging transportation architecture.
  • Improving air connectivity between India and ASEAN countries should also be high on the agenda. Focus should be on expeditiously concluding the ASEAN -India Air Transport Agreement.
  • Digital connectivity is another important area of cooperation, and can shape people-to-people connections for the future. India as a facilitator of the ASEAN-wide digital economy would not only challenge China but also emerge as an economic guarantor of its own.
  • The three Cs of commerce, connectivity and culture have been highlighted but a more granular perspective is needed in terms of a forging a forward-looking approach.


  1. The cultural connect between the two needs strengthening. While India offers scholarships to students from ASEAN states to study at Nalanda University, this initiative should be extended to the IITs and the IIMs.
  • Tourism too can be further encouraged between India and the ASEAN with some creative branding by the two sides.