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50 years of ASEAN: India's partnership with grouping leaves much to be desired in terms of economic, security cooperation

Amid the protracted India-China standoff in the Sikkim region and in resonance with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 'Act East' policy, reports have emerged that New Delhi has been reaching out to leaders of the Association of South East Asia Nations (ASEAN) to invite them for India's 69th Republic Day celebrations. This not only reflects a growing bond between India and the ASEAN nations but also commemorates New Delhi's 25 years of dialogue partnership with the bloc this year.

New Delhi has planned a series of events, including the signing of an air services agreement, a car rally and a maritime expedition by Indian naval ships to the region, to mark 25 years of the partnership.

New Delhi became a full member partner in December 1995 and the relationship was further elevated with the convening of the ASEAN-India Summit in 2002 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Since then, the ASEAN-India Summit has been held annually.As ASEAN completes 50 years of its existence as a bloc, India's relations with its member countries have picked up pace. India started engaging with ASEAN in 1992 through sectoral dialogue partnership. It also joined the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus), Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF), and several other platforms commonly shared with ASEAN.

India's relations with ASEAN nations is an outcome of the significant changes in the world's political and economic scenario since the early 1990s and India's own march towards economic liberalisation. ASEAN leaders welcomed India's 'Act East Policy' and 'Make in India' initiative and encouraged New Delhi to work with the bloc.

"From the Indian perspective, ASEAN occupies a central place in the security architecture of the Asia-Pacific region," minister of state for external affairs VK Singh said.

In terms of security cooperation, since India became a dialogue partner of ASEAN, it has participated in a series of consultative meetings with the bloc under the ASEAN-India Dialogue Relations. India also acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South East Asia (TAC) and signed a Joint Declaration for Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism with the grouping.

The TAC stated that ASEAN political and security dialogue and cooperation should aim to promote regional peace and stability by enhancing regional resilience. Regional resilience shall be achieved by cooperating in all fields based on the principles of self-confidence, self-reliance, mutual respect, cooperation, and solidarity, which shall constitute the foundation for a strong and viable community of nations in Southeast Asia.

India's growing relations with ASEAN nations should also be looked at in the light of Beijing’s boundary disputes with a number of ASEAN countries (including India now). As C Raja Mohan writes: "... at the commemorative summit in Delhi during December 2012, Delhi suggested that it was not too eager to be drawn into the conflicts between some of the ASEAN countries and China. In response to the calls from Vietnam and the Philippines for explicit support from India in their territorial disputes with China, India's then Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid signalled caution and ruled out Delhi's intervention in these disputes."

However, with the recent turn of events, India might reconsider this stand. It is itself involved in a standoff with China in Sikkim, which shows no sign of receding. A growing partnership with ASEAN nations might help India counter the growing presence of Beijing. ASEAN countries see India as a counterbalance against China.

Economic Cooperation

Together, India and the ASEAN nations account for almost one-third of the global population and a combined GDP of approximately $3.8 trillion, according to The Diplomat. Together, they would form the third largest economy in the world.

India's two-way trade with ASEAN stands at about $76 billion and India is also a part of the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which, if implemented, will cover almost 40 percent of the total world trade. The RCEP was supposed to be ready by 2016, however, negotiations are set to spill into 2018, according to Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

While the volume of trade and investment flows between ASEAN and India remained low foreign direct investments (FDI) flow from India to ASEAN increased by 9.4 percent, from $0.96 billion in 2015 to $1.05 billion in 2016.

In 2003, the leaders signed the ASEAN-India Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation. The Framework Agreement laid a sound basis for the establishment of an ASEAN-India Free Trade Area (FTA), which includes FTA in goods, services and investment.

The FTA was formally signed in 2014 and it opened opportunities for movement of both manpower and investments. A comprehensive economic partnership between India, ASEAN and six Free Trade Agreement (FTA) partners will likely take place in 2017, The Hinduquoted an external affairs ministry official as saying.

"The ASEAN is the fourth largest trading partner of India while we are the seventh largest trading partner to the ASEAN. However, there is far more trading potential between India and the ASEAN than they have presently achieved," joint secretary in the MEA Anurag Bhushan told IANS.

In terms of tourism, the number of people visiting ASEAN from India in 2015 was 3.3 million, an increase of 7.49 percent from 3.07 million in 2014. At the ninth edition of the Delhi Dialogue held in New Delhi, as reported by The Diplomat, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj reinforced the importance of 3Cs (connectivity, commerce and culture) in her keynote address.

Connectivity

The ASEAN-India connectivity is a matter of strategic priority for India as also the ASEAN countries. In terms of physical connectivity, recent developments in India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) Trilateral Highway and Kaladan Multimodal Transit and Transport Project were mentioned and the problems in their implementation identified in the recently concluded Delhi Dialogue.

India has also been working with ASEAN to enhance physical connectivity via its North East, said Swaraj. She also said that the Kaladan Multi Modal Transport project, India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and Rih Tedim Project in Myanmar were in progress to enhance connectivity between India and ASEAN nations via the North East.

While the Kaladan project has achieved a physical progress of close to 90 percent and is scheduled to be completed in the next few months, the tendering process for 69 bridges on the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway has been initiated.

The implementation of the project will start soon with the Friendship Bridge connecting Moreh in India and Tamu in Myanmar, she said, adding that the process for Kalewa-Yargi road has also been speeded up.

"The Rih-Tedim Road project will provide all weather connectivity between eastern Mizoram and western Myanmar," the external affairs minister said, adding that work on enhancing air connectivity between the northeast and the ASEAN region was also on.

"Besides these projects, at the 13th ASEAN-India Summit in November 2015, the prime minister announced a line of credit of $1 billion to promote projects that support physical and digital connectivity between India and ASEAN. We will look forward to receiving proposals from ASEAN member states for utilisation of this line of credit," she said.

India's bid to seek further ties with ASEAN nations comes at a time when China is being increasingly assertive. With the uncertainty over the leadership of US president Donald Trump, China seems to be emerging as the next global leader.

"There is now a real question mark over America’s ability to be the leader in the region...everyone is waiting and watching to see what the new US President will decide to do next," Livemint quoted Harsh V Pant, professor of international relations, department of defence studies, at London's King's College, as saying. It is against this backdrop that India's relations with the ASEAN has become even more important.

However, there is much to be done to harness the economic and strategic partnership between India and ASEAN. China's rise as an economic giant and its increasing trade with the ASEAN countries gives India all the more reason to step up its collaborative efforts vis-a-vis ASEAN. India and ASEAN should also in non-traditional security challenges, like piracy, writes Pant.

Source: First Post

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