Indo- ASEAN relations

What is ASEAN?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is a regional organization which was established to promote political and social stability amid rising tensions among the Asia-Pacific’s post-colonial states. The motto of ASEAN is “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”. ASEAN Secretariat – Indonesia, Jakarta.


Established in 1967 with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration (Bangkok Declaration) by its founding fathers. Founding Fathers of ASEAN are: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

Institution Mechanism:

Chairmanship of ASEAN rotates annually, based on the alphabetical order of the English names of Member States.

ASEAN Summit: The supreme policy making body of ASEAN. As the highest level of authority in ASEAN, the Summit sets the direction for ASEAN policies and objectives. Under the Charter, the Summit meets twice a year.

ASEAN Ministerial Councils: The Charter established four important new Ministerial bodies to support the Summit.

  1. ASEAN Coordinating Council (ACC).
  2. ASEAN Political-Security Community Council.
  3. ASEAN Economic Community Council.
  4. ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community Council.



Significance of the grouping:

3rd largest market in the world – larger than EU and North American markets. 6th largest economy in the world, 3rd in Asia. Free-trade agreements (FTAs) with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. Fourth most popular investment destination globally.


ASEAN’s role in Regional Peace and Security

Southeast Asia is a diverse and complex region where every major culture and civilisation of the world finds a place.

Modern Southeast Asia presents an example of varied cultures living together and thriving, despite the region experiencing decades of conflicts.

The year 2017 marks the 50th year of the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).


ASEAN’s Role

  • The group acted as a platform for the member nations to resolve disputes from economic aspects to strategic and security aspects.
  • Regional and extra-regional multilateral platforms engage ASEAN with its dialogue partners were created.
  • These include the Annual Ministerial Meeting (AMM), Asia-Pacific Economic Partnership (APEC) and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) among others.
  • Through these multilateral initiatives, ASEAN has maintained stable relations with the great powers in Asia.
  • ASEAN is now important in the region. It has helped shape regional interactions with the great powers including China, India, Japan and the US.
  • The contribution towards regional peace, stability and prosperity goes beyond Southeast Asia to the wider Asia-Pacific region.
  • ASEAN has declared itself as a nuclear weapon free zone


ASEAN’s strength

  • ASEAN’s strength lies in its great sense of community despite its diversity.
  • The adoption of the ASEAN Charter in 2007 reinforces the sense of community
  • The neutral role played by ASEAN in its external relations has helped ASEAN to “retain its centrality in the region”
  • ASEAN is seen as the most successful regional organisation next only to the EU
  • The centrality of Asia and ASEAN in global politics adds to the opportunities ASEAN has
  • ASEAN has a major role in providing peace and stability in the region


Weaknesses of ASEAN

  • Lack of natural custodian, accepting a common responsibility of ownership to keep the organisation moving.
  • Indonesia is capable of such responsibility but is still unable to perform such a role
  • Geopolitical conflicts and rivalries, weak leadership and the failure to deal with both
  • Intra-ASEAN security issues like Rohingya crisis, migration, human trafficking, pandemics, climate change, South China Sea and piracy.


Concerns / Challenges

  • China’s territorial claims in the oil and gas-rich South China Sea, and building up of artificial islands can prove to be a threat for freedom of navigation in region.
  • The South-China sea dispute has resulted into many ASEAN nations aligning with China.
  • Growing threat posed by Islamic State in Southeast Asia.
  • ASEAN was largely unsuccessful in containing the Rohingaya refugee crisis
  • Cross country organised crime like drug trafficking between Myanmar, Thailand and Laos forming the Golden Triangle could not be contained by ASEAN.


India – ASEAN

  • Association of Southeast Asian Nations is a regional intergovernmental organizationcomprising ten Southeast Asian countries, which promotes intergovernmental cooperation and facilitates economic, political, security, military, educational, and sociocultural integration among its members and other Asian states .
  • India-ASEAN relations can be traced to historical and cultural relations. Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam spread from India to the region and the imprint of this shared cultural heritage is also seen in art forms and architectur
  • Despite this after independence India did not have good relations with ASEAN because ,ASEAN was under the US camp during the Cold War period ( Ideological differences).After the end of Cold War ,India – ASEAN relations have evolved from just economic  ties to strategic  heights owing to common threats and aspirations.

India and ASEAN are natural partners in desire to create  free and inclusive regional architecture.



  • Formation of Association of Southeast Asian Nations by Malaysia, Singapore,Phillippines,Indonesia and Thailand.


  • Two major events , disintegration of USSR (end of Cold War) and India’s march towards economic globalization paved way for India’s Look East policy under the P.V.Narasimha Rao government. India’s ‘Look East’ policy, which was an effort to forge extensive economic, strategic and cultural relations with the nations of the Asia-Pacific region.


  • India became ASEAN’s sectoral dialogue partner


  • India became full dialogue partner of  ASEAN


  • India became a member of ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) ,a  key forum for security dialogue in Asia which provides a setting in which members can discuss current regional security issues and develop cooperative measures to enhance peace and security in the region.


  • India and ASEAN begin to hold annual summit level meetings.


  • India- ASEAN Free trade Agreement in Goods was concluded.


  • India – ASEAN Strategic Partnership was concluded


  • India – ASEAN Free Trade Agreement  in Services and Investment was concluded.This was aimed to facilitate movement of manpower and investments between India and ASEAN.


  • India ASEAN celebrated 25 years of their relationship by holding a commemorative Summit. Leaders of all ten ASEAN countries were invited as Chief Guests for the Republic Day parade on January 26,2018


Transition from Look East Policy to Act East Policy

Look East Policy (LEP) has been a major pillar of India’s foreign policy since the early 1990s.Initiated by PM Narasimha Rao the principal aim of the policy was to pursue a policy of active engagement with countries of South East Asia. Two major reasons responsible for India’s Look East Policy are


  1. Collapse of Soviet Union
  • Collapse of India’s long-term ally left India isolated on the international aren Also, the gulf crisis, spike in oil prices, collapse of Rupee-Rubal agreement, all left India on its own, without an ally on the international scene. This made the search for new partners imperative for India.
  1. Balance of Payment crisis
    • The Balance of Payment crisis & the conditions imposed upon India for obtaining loans from IMF resulted in India opening up its market by reducing tariffs to the world. Thus, providing a ready market for good

The initial focus of Look East policy was on establishing trade & economic linkages with South East Asian countries & for achieving this aim, it went ahead to foster greater trade & economic linkages with ASEAN countries.

In this period India became a sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1992 and then a Summit level partner in 2002.

Trade between India and ASEAN multiplied fourfold — from $ 3.1 billion in 1991 to about $ 12 billion in 2002.

The second phase of Look East Policy focused on deepening economic ties, strategic & domestic dimensions, while the focus of First phase of Look East policy was primarily economic engagement.

The three guiding parameters of the 2nd phase of Look East policy were

  1. Deeper & wider economic engagements
    • Involved establishing institutional linkages between India & ASEAN nations
    • ASEAN is the first trade bloc with which India finalized a FTA in 2010 in goods
  2. Strategic & Security Component
    • The rise of China has been a cause of concern for many ASEAN .The rise of China has been accompanied by its growing assertiveness in its backyard as seen in the frequency with which it has asserted claims in South China Sea & East China Se
    • These countries view India as a possible partner in their effort to maintain balance of power & peace in the region.
    • India looks at ASEAN not simply as an institution of economic development but also as an integral part of India’s vision of stable, secure & prosperous Asia.
  3. Domestic dimensionLooking East through the North East.
    • Establishing trade & connectivity links with South East Asian countries via North East has been one of the focus Some initiatives in this regard are
      1. India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway.
      2. Kaladan Multimodal Transport.
  • Mekong Ganga Corridor.
  1. Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor.

The Look East Policy has matured into a dynamic and action oriented ‘Act East Policy in 2014 with a a focus on  extended neighbourhood in the Asia-Pacific region. India  has  upgraded  its  relations  to  strategic  partnership  with  Indonesia,  Vietnam,  Malaysia,  Japan, Republic of Korea (ROK), Australia, Singapore and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and forged close ties with all countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

The key principles and objectives of ”Act East Policy” is to promote economic cooperation, cultural ties and develop strategic relationship with countries in the Asia-Pacific region through continuous engagement at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels thereby providing enhanced connectivity to the States of North Eastern Region with other countries in our neighborhood.

Further, apart from ASEAN, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and East Asia Summit (EAS), India has also been actively engaged in regional fora such as Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC) and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).

Act East Policy has placed emphasis on India-ASEAN cooperation in our domestic agenda on infrastructure, manufacturing, trade, skills, urban renewal, smart cities, Make in India and other initiatives.


  1. Focus on tangible action and concrete results is inherent in the change from ‘Look’ to ‘Act’.
  2. Deepening cooperation with the extended region, comprising in particular US, Japan, Australia and South Korea, in order to cope with a marked increase in China’s assertiveness.
  3. Boldness on India’s part in the security, defense and strategic domain.
  4. India might become even more cordial and cooperative with ASEAN, but hard-nosed too. PM Modi called for conducting ‘a review of our FTA at his first summit itself.’ A strong push to negotiations for the RCEP to conclude them early. Besides, higher dedication was promised for creating “the trident” of commerce, culture and connectivity.
  5. Finally, the new government indicated clearly that India’s North Eastern Region (NER) would receive a higher priority in the implementation of AEP.


More focus has been given to Connectivity projects, cooperation in space, S&T and people-to-people exchanges.

Areas of Cooperation


  • The signing of a FTA in goods in 2009 was a game-changer, and with signing of the India-ASEAN FTA on Services and Investment in 2014 ,economic relations reached a new high.
  • The India-ASEAN trade is currently US$ 86b billion
  • Target of scaling the India-ASEAN trade to $100 billion by 2015 failed.
  • ASEAN is currently India’s fourth largest trading partner.


Strategic Depth

  • The rising tensions in the South China Sea have lent an added urgency to the strategic dimension of the relationship.
  • India has consistently called for freedom of navigation, and on trans-national issues also been a proactive participant in shaping discourse on these issues in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia summit process.



  • New Delhi is also looking forward to conclusion of negotiations for an ASEAN-India Transit Transport Agreement (Proposed).
    • Upgradation of Land Customs Stations, addressing immigration, customs, Phyto-sanitary facilities, permission for transporters, insurance issues along our borders, particularly with Myanmar. This will be done in India-Myanmar-Thailand negotiations on Transit Transport Agreement.
  • The Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo sector of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway – projected completion in 2018 – India has backed the extension of this highway to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam (the proposed India-Vietnam route will be known as the East-West Economic Corridor (EWEC), its further linkage with ports in ASEAN countries and its integration with models like SEZs. –>> critical to unlocking the economic energies and enterprise of India’s north-eastern states, which border the region
  • In the future, the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway could link up with already existing roads like the one linking Thailand with the Vietnamese port of Da Nang.


IMT Highway

The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway is a highway under construction under India’s Look East Policy that will connect Moreh, India with Mae Sot, Thailand via Myanmar.

The road will boost the trade and commerce in the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area, and with the rest of Southeast Asia. India has also proposed extending the highway to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.



  • Kaladan Multi-Modal Transport Project
    • The Kaladan project connects Sittwe Port in Myanmar to the India-Myanmar border.
    • To create a multi-modal platform for cargo shipments from the eastern ports to Myanmar and to the North-eastern parts of the country through Myanmar.
    • Significance:
      • It is expected to open up sea routes and promote economic development in the North-eastern states, and also add value to the economic, commercial and strategic ties between India and Myanmar.
      • This project will reduce distance from Kolkata to Sittwe by approximately 1328 km and will reduce the need to transport good through the narrow Siliguri corridor, also known as Chicken’s Neck.



With the region facing growing traditional and non-traditional challenges, politico-security cooperation is a key and an emerging pillar of this relationship:

  • Maritime security-Safeguarding Sea lanes of communication and combating piracy
  • Radicalization and terrorism
  • Drug trafficking and Human trafficking
  • South China Sea disputes
  • In this context India has following attributes that can enhance cooperation:

o Tri services command in Andaman and Nicobar

o Participation in forum for ASEAN security dialogue such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). India has been attending annual meetings of this forum since 1996 and has actively participated in its various activities.

o     The  ASEAN  Defense  Ministers’  Meeting  (ADMM)  Plus  is  the  highest  defense  consultative  and cooperative mechanism in ASEAN. The ADMM+ brings together Defence Ministers from the 10 ASEAN nations plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Russia, and the United States on a biannual basis.

o     Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF) is an avenue for track 1.5 diplomacy focusing on cross cutting maritime issues of common concern.



  •  India‘s cultural relation with Southeast Asia is centuries old and serves as a living link between the two regions. Civilizational and cultural links date back thousands of years, since the prehistoric times.
  • The region found mention in many Indian classical works as the Ramayana, while Indian merchants began bringing Hinduism and Buddhism across the sea by the 1st century AD, influencing the development of kingdoms and empires like Srivijaya in Sumatra and the Majapahit in Java, Bali and the Philippine archipelago.
  • Hindu religious symbols are very popular in Indonesia. In the medieval periods, Indian kings had considerable influence in this region as the Hindu temples of Barabadur in Java, Indonesia and Angkorvat temple in Cambodia bear testimony to it. Also there was a flourishing trade relations between the two regions.


There has been increased cultural cooperation through following ways

o Buddhism, Yoga

o Revival of Nalanda University,

o Chairs of Indian studies in universities (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia)

o Indian Cultural Centres (Jakarta, Bali, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Suva, Lautoka), and

o joint restoration of monuments (Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos).



  • Imbalance in Trade and Investment
    • Although the trade between both regions have increased substantially however it is skewed against India. This is primarily attributed to Free trade agreement (FTA) with ASEAN resulting into flooding of cheap imported products into India.
    • Apart from unfavorable balance of trade, India’s domestic producers are also suffering. For example- Cheaper palm oil from ASEAN is hurting local prod producers in Kerala. On the investment front too, India is at back foot.
    • In 2015, India accounted for only 1.3 percent of total net inflows into ASEAN and was largely in the financial, insurance and real estate segment.
    • Also the investment by India FDI into ASEAN nations accounts for 22% of its total outbound FDI; far less in comparison to the US, the EU and Japan.


  • China’s increasing presence
    • Despite problems between China and ASEAN members on the issue of South China Sea, China is trying to increase it presence in the area through its one belt one road initiative which is opposed by India.
    • For example-investments have been made to connect Laos, Thailand with southern China through high speed rail links.


  • Physical connectivity
    • Better transport connectivity is critical to India-ASEAN relations. But on this front too both sides lag behind. There are no railway links, poor road facilities.
    • Delay in completing infrastructure projects— India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, the Kaladan Multimodal Transit and Transport Project, and the Moreh-Mandalay Bus Services -due to various political and financial constraints, has impeded the progress of economic cooperation.
    • Moreover, the India’s North east connectivity has also been hampered. Given that Myanmar shares such a long border with NE states and can act as a bridge between India and South East Asian markets so there is a need to speed up the stalled projects.

ASEAN lacks in strategic sovereignty because major leaders of the region are engaged in complex geo-politics of the region so ASEAN has to look at many leaders to take it ahead than on one. This deficiency also caused trust deficiency for India as well and ultimately leading to challenge India‘s ties with the organisation

With increasing assertiveness of China and its soft power diplomacy through OBOR in the South East Asian Region it has become imperative for India to engage effectively in the region. Besides making efforts for favourable economic relations, the two sides should also explore the unexplored domains in the relationship especially energy security

ASEAN countries, particularly Myanmar, Vietnam and Malaysia can potentially contribute to India’s energy security. Also oil and natural gas deposits in the South China Sea region should be explored through regional cooperation. Similarly, India with huge demographic dividend can provide a human resource base to ASEAN who is going to experience a burden of lower share of working age population and a higher median age of workers.

India’s geostrategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region depend on India’s bilateral and multilateral engagements with the countries in the region.

Maintaining cordiality with ASEAN as an organisation and with the individual Southeast Asian countries remains crucial for India