India-ASEAN relations: Charting a course for an ever-deepening strategic partnership
While India’s relationship with ASEAN serves as a foundation for the country’s Act East Policy, its Indo-Pacific vision recognizes centrality of the group; both have diversified their engagements—from connectivity and trade and economic ties to strategic and defence partnership, marking a high-level of trust and confidence between the two sides
Upon the invitation extended by the President of the Republic of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, Prime Minister Narendra Modi participated in the 20th ASEAN-India Summit and the 18th East Asia Summit (EAS) on September 7, 2023, in Jakarta.
This marked Prime Minister Modi's ninth consecutive attendance at the ASEAN-India Summit. Despite the brevity of his visit, it proved to be highly productive.
During the summit, Prime Minister Modi introduced a comprehensive 12-point proposal aimed at fortifying cooperation between India and ASEAN.
This encompassed various domains, including connectivity, digital transformation, collaborative counterterrorism efforts, trade, and economic partnerships, addressing contemporary challenges, fostering people-to-people ties, and enhancing strategic engagements.
Furthermore, Prime Minister Modi engaged in extensive dialogue with ASEAN counterparts to bolster the ASEAN-India Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and map out its future trajectory.
Notably, the persistent claims made by China in the South China Sea continue to be a significant concern for ASEAN member states, who view these claims as a breach of global norms by Beijing.
Importance of ASEAN-India relations
The significance of the ASEAN-India relationship is underscored by Prime Minister Modi's decision to visit Jakarta, even one day before the G20 summit. This demonstrates the paramount importance both sides attribute to their partnership.
Most notably, India and the contemporary ASEAN region share a common concern regarding China's assertive actions within their respective borders. Additionally, they both express apprehension about China's apparent disregard for adhering to a rule-based global order.
The visit held exceptional significance, especially in the context of rapidly evolving geopolitical dynamics in the ASEAN region.
Notably, this marked the first ASEAN summit following India and ASEAN's elevation of their cooperation to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2022, adding a profound layer of significance to the occasion.
Furthermore, the visit carried a strategic weight, occurring shortly after the release of a new map by China that forcefully claimed Indian territories, including Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh.
This map also encroached upon a substantial portion of the maritime jurisdiction belonging to several ASEAN countries, prompting strong protests from the affected nations.
In this context, the visit served as a powerful demonstration of solidarity, with India reaffirming ASEAN's central role in the Indo-Pacific region.
India and ASEAN share a common vision for the Indo-Pacific and are deeply committed to harnessing the synergy between ASEAN's Outlook on the Indo-Pacific and India's Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative.
This visit underscored the joint dedication to furthering their collaborative efforts in this critical region.
Convergence of interests
The cooperation between India and ASEAN has its roots in the early 1990s when both parties recognised the need for a more extensive partnership to address emerging economic and strategic challenges, particularly in the light of China's growing economic and military influence.
India sought economic partners in the region, both as a destination for foreign direct investment (FDI) and as a trading partner.
In response to ASEAN's needs, India initiated the Look East Policy, which was subsequently bolstered in November 2014 with the launch of the action-oriented "Act East Policy," officially announced by Prime Minister Modi at the 9th East Asian Summit.
From ASEAN's perspective, it sought a dependable strategic ally like India to counterbalance China's increasing presence in the region.
This collaborative journey commenced with India's inclusion as a Sectoral Partner of ASEAN in 1992. Given the evolving geostrategic and geo-economic landscape in Asia, and specifically in the Indo-Pacific region, this partnership underwent periodic enhancements.
India ascended to the status of Dialogue Partners in 1996 and Summit Level Partners in 2002. In recognition of its growing importance, the relationship was elevated to a Strategic Partnership in 2012 and further advanced to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2022.
Emphasizing the strategic significance of the Indo-Pacific and the commitment to strengthen its presence in the region, India established a dedicated mission to ASEAN and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Jakarta in April 2015, appointing a dedicated Ambassador for this purpose.
Throughout this 30-year journey, the relationship has addressed a wide range of mutual interests and concerns through extensive engagements, including seven ministerial meetings and numerous official-level interactions.
In addition to India's consistent high-level participation in every ASEAN meeting since 1992, both sides have jointly devised several action plans, starting in 2004.
These plans have identified priority areas, with the fifth plan of action adopted in 2020, further facilitating the successful execution of political, security, and economic initiatives.
Enhancing political-security cooperation
Given the increasing array of conventional and non-conventional challenges in Asia, both India and ASEAN are committed to formulating a collaborative response that hinges on coordination, cooperation, and the exchange of expertise in addressing threats stemming from terrorist organisations, radicalisation, organised crime, drug trafficking, and cyber security.
India has actively engaged with the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) since 1996, fostering dialogues to address these challenges.
Additionally, India is an integral part of the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meetings (ADMM), which stands as the premier defense consultative and cooperative mechanism within ASEAN.
Significant strides have been made in enhancing defense cooperation between India and ASEAN. Notably, the inaugural ASEAN-India Defence Ministers' meeting took place in November 2022, marking a milestone in their partnership.
In May 2023, they jointly conducted their first maritime exercise, reflecting their commitment to bolstering cooperation in maritime safety, security, and domain awareness, as emphasized in Prime Minister Modi's 12-point proposal. In alignment with these efforts, a joint statement on Maritime Cooperation was adopted in September 2023.
ASEAN stands as India's fourth-largest trading partner. In the fiscal year 2022-23, the bilateral trade between India and ASEAN reached an impressive US$131.5 billion.
This accounted for more than 11 percent of India's total trade volume for the year, ranking second only to India's trade with the European Union.
In August 2023, both parties initiated a comprehensive review of the ASEAN India Trade in Goods Agreement, with the aim of concluding this process by 2025.
This review seeks to create a more amicable and trade-facilitative environment while addressing existing imbalances in trade.
In terms of investments, ASEAN has been a substantial contributor, representing approximately 18.28% of India's total foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows, amounting to US$68.91 billion between 2000 and March 2018.
Conversely, India has also made significant FDI outflows to ASEAN countries, totaling about US$38.672 billion from April 2007 to March 2015.
Furthermore, both sides have undertaken various collaborative projects, such as initiatives in road connectivity, the Kaladan multimodal project, and the development of economic corridors, all aimed at advancing economic growth and people-to-people connectivity.
Additionally, they have established several funds, including the ASEAN-India Cooperation Fund, the ASEAN-India S&T Development Fund, the ASEAN-India Green Fund, and ASEAN-India projects spanning agriculture, science and technology, renewable energy, tourism, and people-to-people engagements.
Fostering cultural cooperation
Both India and ASEAN have demonstrated a strong commitment to preserving their historical bonds while aligning people-to-people connectivity with economic collaboration.
India consistently extends invitations to ASEAN students annually, facilitating the student exchange program, specialized training initiatives for ASEAN diplomats, and reciprocal visits by parliamentarians, among other initiatives.
Furthermore, there have been frequent and meaningful engagements between the ASEAN-India network of think tanks and cultural groups, fostering deeper ties and understanding.
The elevation of India-ASEAN cooperation from a strategic partnership to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signifies the recognition of India as a trusted and dependable partner by ASEAN.
Moreover, this relationship has steadily evolved and diversified over the past three decades, marked by a lack of animosity, in stark contrast to ASEAN's interactions with China.
Both as a collective entity and in individual member-country relationships, ASEAN acknowledges India's commitment to the Indo-Pacific region, its active participation in the QUAD, its unwavering diplomatic stance in favor of establishing a rule-based global order, and its leadership role within the Global South.
These factors are viewed as an opportunity to counteract Chinese coercive diplomacy and strengthen regional stability.
**The writer is a Research Fellow at the MP-IDSA, New Delhi; views expressed are personal.