India and ASEAN countries, sharing a historical and civilisational linkages between them, have in the recent past achieved significant progress in several areas, yet there is enormous room for development, keeping in mind sharp changes in geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region
At the India-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Indonesia on July 13-14, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar reiterated India’s support to ASEAN centrality and the ASEAN outlook on Indo-Pacific. Jaishankar also said India looked forward to working with ASEAN in further expanding their partnership in the areas of cyber, financial, and maritime security. Enjoying multi-faceted engagements, encompassing--security, connectivity, space technology, counter-terrorism and anti-insurgency operations, anti-radicalisation, trade and investment, maritime security, and defence, India, and ASEAN elevated their engagement to comprehensive strategic partnership last year. Nature of engagements India’s engagement with ASEAN is a ‘multilevel process’ backed by several bilateral diplomatic institutional mechanisms. Apart from Minister level meetings and Annual Summits at the bilateral level, the ‘Delhi Dialogue’ (DD) mechanism, which is hosted by India annually, is the key Track 1.5 mechanism between both bilaterally. In addition, sectoral dialogue mechanisms (SDMs) between both on business and trade, energy cooperation, enhancing connectivity and education also provided new scope and significance for formal engagements. The East Asia Summit (EAS), which was established in 2005, is an important part of the ASEAN-led institutional framework cooperation. In the year 2019, PM Modi announced the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) at the 14th East Asia Summit aiming to forge sustainable maritime cooperation. At the 2021 Summit the adoption of Indo-ASEAN Joint Statement on Cooperation or ASEAN Outlook, agreement on establishing the ASEAN Cultural Heritage List and the beginning of forming ASEAN-India Project Management Unit (AIPMU) gave a broader institutional platform for new set of cooperation and engagements. In the year 2022, India hosted the Special ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers Meeting, to mark the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the bilateral engagement. They called for wider cooperation in the areas like trade and investment, defence and security, enhancing connectivity, and also joint efforts to mitigate climate change and sustainability action in the region. Maritime cooperation One of the key areas of engagement between both is the domain of ‘Maritime cooperation’ which remains the key plank of security relations as well. This also includes bilateral interest of both sides to augment their maritime infrastructure and connectivity links. The two sides held their first Maritime Exercise—AIME-2023---in the South China Sea in May this year. According to India’s Ministry of Defence, approximately 1400 personnel manning nine ships participated in the sea phase of the multilateral naval exercise. India’s indigenously designed and built ships- destroyer INS Delhi and stealth frigate ‘INS Satpura’, maritime patrol aircraft P8I and integral helicopters exercised with ASEAN naval ships from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The two-day sea-phase witnessed a wide spectrum of evolutions at sea including tactical manoeuvres, cross deck landings by helicopters, seamanship evolutions and other maritime operations. Apart from honing skills in the maritime domain the exercise enhanced interoperability and demonstrated the ability of Indian and ASEAN navies to operate as an integrated force to promote peace, stability, and security in the region. Trade and investment The two-way trade (in goods) between India and ASEAN reached $110.39 billion in 2021 and rose to $131 billion in 2022-23. But India’s trade balance with ASEAN has deteriorated after the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement. In the current financial year alone, the trade gap between the two sides ballooned by 70% to reach $43 billion, according to Mint. To address concerns over trade imbalance and rules of origin, India has begun talks with the ASEAN countries. India-ASEAN investments are mainly concentrated on Singapore. Between 2000-2019, cumulative FDIs from ASEAN to India was $117.88 billion, but these were mainly accounted for by Singaporean investments in India ($115 billion). About 9000 Indian companies are registered in Singapore. 6 PSUs, 9 banks, India Tourism, CII, FICCI, Air India, Jet Airways have their offices in Singapore. More than 440 companies from Singapore are registered in India. Two banks-DBS and United Overseas Bank (UOB) have a presence in India. In addition to this, Enterprise Singapore (ES), Economic Development Board (EDB) and Singapore Tourism Board have their offices in India. The India-Singapore CEO Forum was launched in November 2018. Connectivity In terms of India-ASEAN connectivity, India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway forms a key part of physical linkages between the two sides. Recently, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari said around 70% construction work on the ambitious India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway has been completed. The 1360 km long highway connects Moreh in Manipur, India with Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar. There is a plan to extend the highway to Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Some economists say that once connectivity projects get completed, it will become a source of revenue generation; it will annually generate an estimated $70 billion in incremental GDP and 20 million in incremental aggregate employment by 2025. India has offered a $1 billion line of credit for the India-ASEAN connectivity projects. Space cooperation At the 19th India-ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh in November 2022, both sides had agreed to enhance cooperation in the space sector including through the establishment of tracking, data reception and processing stations in Vietnam and Indonesia, and encourage cooperation between Indian and ASEAN space industry players, including in new areas of collaboration. In 2016, India and Vietnam signed an MoU on information technology and are working to set up a Centre for Satellite Tracking and Data Reception and Imaging facility in Vietnam under India-ASEAN cooperation mechanism. Another ASEAN country, Thailand, is enhancing its space cooperation with India. In August 2023, as per Nikkei Asia, Thailand’s Geo-Informatics and Space Technology Development Agency (GISTDA) plans to launch an industrial satellite from India. On May 30, 2018, India and Indonesia signed a Framework Agreement on cooperation in the exploration and uses of outer space for peaceful purposes. On February6, 2019, the Union Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave an ex-post facto approval to the Framework Agreement between the two countries. Since then, cooperation between the two countries in the space sector has been going on. On July 30, 2023, the ISRO successfully launched the PSLV-C56 and placed in orbit Singapore’s DS-SAR satellite and 6 other co-passenger satellites. This marked yet another milestone in India-ASEAN space cooperation. Cultural relations India and ASEAN countries share historical and civilizational cultural linkages. The historical relations with ASEAN countries go as far back as 2000 years. Several imprints of the past related to religion, customs and traditions of India are still visible in the life and traditions of the countries of ASEAN. For example, Garuda, the legendary bird in Hindu and Buddhist mythological traditions, is the national emblem of Indonesia. Garuda is also represented in Wayang, a traditional puppet culture of Indonesia’s Java which is also a home to the 10th century built Prambanan Temple-dedicated to the Trimurti—Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer). The Prambanan Temple, which finds itself in the UNESCO World Heritage site, is the second-largest temple in the region after Angkor Wat of Cambodia. Indonesia’s Java and Bali provinces are fully drenched with cultural sentiments of Ramayana. The portrayal of the Ramayana on stone is seen in Central Java, where the epic is carved onto the courtyard balustrades in the Chandi Shiva and the Chandi Brahma temples. In fact, the Ramayana remains in the imagination and cultural milieu of Indonesia. Thailand, another ASEAN country, continues to be overwhelmed by religious and cultural matrices from India. The shared link of Buddhism is reflected in regular pilgrimages to places of Buddhist interest in India by a large number of Thai people. Hindu elements can be found among those reflected in Thai architecture, arts, sculpture, dance, drama and literature. Thai language incorporates Pali and Sanskrit influences. A large Indian diaspora living and working in Thailand is another important bond. Similarly, despite being prominently a Buddhist country, Cambodia retains a strong influence of both Hindu and Buddhist rituals, idolatry and mythology which can be seen in many of its rituals having resemblance with Indian culture and traditions. Khmer language too is a live example of Indian culture which has approximately more than 3000 words that originated from ancient Indian Sanskrit language. Later the pervading influence of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Indian architecture are borne out by the magnificent structures at Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei, Preah Vihear and other religious and historical sites in Cambodia. India-Myanmar relations are rooted in shared historical, ethnic, cultural and religious ties. As the land of Lord Buddha, India is a country of pilgrimage for the people of Myanmar. India and Myanmar relations have stood the test of time. Central Vietnam, it is said, still reverberates with its civilizational connection with India through its Cham people who have still kept their traditions alive for centuries, despite being far from India’s shores. It is said that elements of Indian civilization through art, architecture, knowledge traditions and philosophies were introduced in Vietnam by merchants, artists, and monks since the first millennia CE. Champa Civilization in South and Central Vietnam played a significant role in linking Indian cultural elements and practices with Vietnam. The message of Lord Buddha was introduced to Vietnam by Indian Buddhist masters in the 2nd century CE. Conclusion The contemporary geopolitical dynamics and fast-changing global society requires a robust approach to dealing with different challenges. India and ASEAN need to deliberate on issues so they can cooperate effectively, share mutual respect, coordinate, and learn from each other. ***Author teaches at University of Delhi’s Deshbandhu College; views expressed here are his own