The 15th ASEAN- India Summit was held on 14 November 2017 in Manila, Philippines. This marked 25th anniversary of ASEAN- India dialogue relations. The Summit was chaired by H.E. Rodrigo Roa Duterte, President of the Republic of the Philippines. The Summit was attended by all Heads of State/Government of ASEAN Member States and H.E. Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of the Republic of India. The Secretary-General of ASEAN was also in attendance. The Chairman said that this milestone in dialogue relations presents an opportunity to further advance cooperation under the Plan of Action to Implement the ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity (2016-20) through various projects across all three ASEAN community pillars. According to the Chairman the member countries agreed to continue enhancing the strategic partnership between ASEAN and India in order to bring about tangible benefits to the peoples as well as contribute to the promotion of peace, stability, and prosperity in the region. They highlighted the importance of frequent high-level meetings and exchanges in building cooperative efforts to address regional and global issues of common concern. The summit also acknowledged India’s role in the region and its deep civilizational and cultural links with the ASEAN countries. The Chairman welcomed various commemorative activities between ASEAN countries and India to deepen people to people contacts. He appreciated India’s continued support for ASEAN’s centrality in the evolving regional architecture active participation and positive contribution to ASEAN-led mechanisms, including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus), Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF) and other Senior Officials Meetings and engagements. Through these mechanisms, ASEAN-India cooperation continues to gain strength in effectively responding to traditional as well as non-traditional security challenges, especially terrorism, violent extremism, radicalisation, maritime security, and cyber security.
Major outcomes of the 15th ASEAN-India Summit
ASEAN agreed to further strengthen regular interactions between ASEAN and India particularly through the ASEAN-India Summit, the Post-Ministerial Conference Plus One (PMC+1) Session with India, the ASEAN-India Senior Officials’ Meeting, and the ASEAN-India Joint Cooperation Committee Meeting, among other regular meetings, to develop and deepen areas of cooperation.
The ASEAN leaders noted the adoption of the framework of the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea (COC), and urged the Parties to conclude a substantive and effective COC consistent with universally recognised principles of international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) at the earliest opportunity. In this regard, we welcomed the announcement of the start of substantive negotiations on the COC at the 20th ASEAN-China Summit.
The leaders also reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, maritime safety and security, rules-based order and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea. In this regard, we further reaffirmed the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, emphasized the importance of nonmilitarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states, including those mentioned in the DOC that could further complicate the situation and escalate tensions in the South China Sea, and stressed the need to adhere to the peaceful resolution of disputes, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
They also discussed ways to enhance ASEAN-India cooperation in cyber security including by holding the ASEAN India Cyber Dialogue early next year which would discuss, among other topics, India’s support for a potential ASEAN Cyber Centre and networks of national Computer Emergency Response Teams (CERTS). ASEAN –India leaders noted that these topics are currently being considered through feasibility studies and have tasked their officials to explore this area further, taking into account the outcomes of the studies.
ASEAN leaders recognized that India remains one of ASEAN’s top ten trading partners in 2016 with total trade volume amounting to $58.45 billion and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) flows from India to ASEAN recorded at nearly $1.05 billion in the same year. We stressed the need to fully tap the potentials offered by the effective implementation of the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area, operationalisation of the ASEAN-India Trade and Investment Centre (AITIC) and the finalisation of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. The leaders welcomed the progress in the ratification of the ASEAN-India Trade in Services and Investment Agreements and encouraged the Parties which have not ratified the agreements yet to do so at the earliest possible time. We reiterated the importance of implementing these Agreements by all Parties to further contribute towards elevating ASEAN-India economic relations to a higher level. In view of the large potential of the RCEP to promote global trade and growth, they reaffirmed their strong commitment to bring the RCEP negotiations to a conclusion.
The leaders reiterated the importance of ASEAN- India connective cooperation and initiatives which would significantly contribute to the implementation of the five strategic areas of the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity (MPAC) 2025. In this regard, ASEAN leaders noted India’s commitment to support ASEAN’s connectivity goals, including the establishment of a $ 1 billion line of credit for digital and infrastructure connectivity. They encouraged its full utilization towards strengthening the strategic area of digital innovation in particular and welcomed the convening of the ASEAN-India Connectivity Summit (11-12 December 2017 in New Delhi). They appreciated India’s constructive role in expediting the completion of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project and looked forward to developing an India-Myanmar-Laos-Vietnam Cambodia highway as committed in the Plan of Action to implement the ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity (2016-2020). They invited India to support initiatives to strengthen MSMEs platforms including in the Brunei-Indonesia-Philippines East Asian Growth Area (BIMP- EAGA) with a view to spurring economic progress.
The ASEAN leaders encouraged stronger aviation and maritime connectivity by working towards the expeditious conclusion of an ASEAN-India Air Transport Agreement and an ASEAN-India Maritime Transport Agreement. They welcomed the convening of the First Meeting of ASEAN-India Joint Working Group in Civil Aviation in December 2017.
They noted the implementation of the Plan of Action on ASEAN-India Cooperation in Food, Agriculture and Forestry (2016-2020) to further enhance cooperation in food, agriculture and forestry, with the aim of enhancing productivity of agricultural products and meet the challenges of food security in the region.
The ASAN leaders looked forward to the early signing of the ASEAN-India Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on establishing the ASEAN-India Centre (AIC). The Centre’s early operationalisation would help promote cooperation in various areas such as trade, investment, tourism and people-to-people exchanges between ASEAN and India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi represented India at the ASEAN-India Summit, the East Asia Summit and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Summit in November 2017 in Manila, and this put India at the centrestage of the Asian region, called the Indo-Pacific. India-ASEAN bonhomie nurtured over the years also needs to be seen against the background of China’s increasing presence and muscle-flexing on certain regional issues, which violates international norms and goes against established order. India, Japan, Australia, and the US are working together to cope with this new situation. This development is not sudden; it dates back to 2006 when Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first proposed the India-US-Japan-Australia quadrilateral in order to work for peace and order in the Indo-Pacific region. It abruptly ended after Abe resigned. After 10 years in wilderness, the same idea is now being revived.
The Manila statement ended on cooperation for a “free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region” in a direct signal to China that the initiative by the four countries will counter its actions in the South China Sea if necessary. Modi is seeking similar cooperation with the US separately as well, as his one-to-one talks with Trump indicated. The ‘Quad’ is not a maritime alliance but aims at enhancing connectivity in accordance with “the rule of law” and “prudent financing” in the Indo-Pacific together. The second part of the description pertains to the US plans to build an “alternative financing model” to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. However, despite that the Quad is called a “coalition of democracies” of the Indo-Pacific, there is no denying the fact that the initiative is aimed at countering China’s growing influence in the region. As the only member of the proposed coalition that is also part of another security arrangement involving China and Russia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, India’s ability to balance its interests remains to be tested.
While India navigates on the political front by its engagement strategy, what transpired from Modi’s speech in Manila showed India’s resolve to bring its economic and business ties with the region up to the level of their “exceptionally good political and people-to-people relations”, As India is pushing its economy to integrate with the economies of the world vigorously by more forward-looking policies, the Modi Government’s engagement with the ASEAN region is further reinforced by changes in global power equations, which beg readjustment of strategy by India. The ASEAN is at the centre as India balances diverse alliances in strengthening its East Asia pivot.
Background of ASEAN- India ties
The dialogue partnership between ASEAN and India was established in 1992 and was upgraded to a full dialogue relationship in December 1995. At the ASEAN – India Summit in the Indian capital of New Delhi in 2012, the two sides’ leaders decided to lift their ties to a strategic partnership.
2017 was a year that witnessed many milestones in the ASEAN – India relationship, with the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the dialogue partnership, the 15th anniversary of the summit partnership and five years of the strategic partnership.
Over the past year, ASEAN – India relations have been constantly strengthened in three pillars including politics-security, economy, and culture-society. In terms of politics-security, India reaffirmed that ASEAN is central to its ‘Act East Policy’ as well as sharing its views with ASEAN on building a regional structure based on open, comprehensive and balanced rules, while considering its comprehensive connectivity with ASEAN as a focus point.
Regarding economic cooperation, the two-way trade turnover between ASEAN and India reached nearly US$76 billion in 2017, increasing nearly 2.5 times over the past few years. ASEAN is India’s fourth largest trading partner, while India is ASEAN’s sixth largest trading partner (If EU as a group is excluded). India is currently implementing a US$75 million Project Development Fund to support Indian enterprises investing in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. The ASEAN – India Summit on digital links was held in December 2017, highlighting the proposal of the Task Force on the interconnection to accelerate the India – Myanmar – Thailand Trilateral Highway which plans to be expanded into Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Culture-society is also an effective field of cooperation between ASEAN and India. Many cultural and people-to-people exchanges have been organised periodically by the two sides, such as ASEAN – India Student Exchange Programme, training courses for ASEAN diplomats, and an international seminar on civilisation connectivity between ASEAN and India. In 2016, India launched an India-ASEAN Goodwill Scholarship, aiming to promote the understanding of culture among the younger generations of both sides.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted the leaders of ASEAN countries on 25 January, 2018 for a summit on ‘Shared Values, Common Destiny’ to commemorate 25 years of dialogue partnership — to be followed by the unprecedented attendance of all 10 ASEAN Heads of State or Government at India’s 69th Republic Day celebrations.
ASEAN was founded in 1967 by Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines with the aim of containing communism in their region. India, a leader of the Non-Alignment Movement, which also leaned towards the Soviet Union, wasn’t enthusiastic about what it saw as a pro-US bloc in Asia.
The first time a dialogue was proposed between India and ASEAN was in 1976, when Y B Chavan was External Affairs Minister. That initiative did not progress, but in response to an outreach by the Janata government, ASEAN secretary general Datuk Ali bin Abdullah of Malaysia visited New Delhi in November 1978 and met with External Affairs Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The Indian envoy to Indonesia then approached the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta for “observer” or dialogue partner status, but that effort failed in the light of New Delhi’s hands-off approach to the Kampuchean crisis. (In 1979, Vietnamese forces overthrew the Chinese-backed Pol Pot regime, following which China invaded Vietnam. ASEAN called for “immediate and total withdrawal of foreign forces from Kampuchean territory”, and described the neutral position that India took as a “blow to ASEAN”.)
After Indira Gandhi returned to power, India moved increasingly closer to the Soviet Union. In June 1980, External Affairs Minister P V Narasimha Rao cancelled a visit to an ASEAN dialogue at the last minute citing his mother’s illness, which was perceived by many in ASEAN to be a kind of “diplomatic illness”. Through the Eighties, contact between India and ASEAN were minimal.
The collapse of the USSR, India’s search for global partners in the region, and the plugging of India’s economy into the global economic system pushed Rao, now Prime Minister, to formulate a “Look East policy” in 1992. India became an ASEAN sectoral partner that year, and a dialogue partner and member of the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1996. In 2002, India and ASEAN entered into a summit partnership.
Over the last two decades, India’s engagement with the group has been guided also by the ambitions and aspirations of an emerging power, and by its response to Chinese assertiveness in the region. This was one of the principal reasons for the summit-level partnership during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era. In 2012, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh celebrated 20 years of dialogue partnership by hosting all 10 ASEAN leaders for the first time. In 2014, Modi changed the description of the Indian policy from “Look East” to “Act East”, conveying India’s willingness to engage with Southeast Asia more proactively.
Among ASEAN’s trade partners, India is number 7 now, behind China, Japan, the US, Australia, South Korea and the EU. Despite being in ASEAN’s immediate neighbourhood, it is seventh in investments in the region.Bilateral trade went from $ 2 billion in 1992 to $ 12 billion in 2002, growing 12% annually, and then jumped to $ 72 billion in 2012. A two-way trade target of $ 100 billion by the 25th anniversary of the bilateral partnership was set in 2012 — but that target could not be achieved; two-way trade is currently around $ 76 billion.
However, India’s intent to engage with ASEAN is clear and unambiguous. There are 30 dialogue mechanisms between India and ASEAN countries, including an annual Summit and seven ministerial meetings. “Common concerns and aspirations, as well as similar threats and challenges, confront the ASEAN countries and India at a time when not only Asia but the whole world is in the throes of an uncertain and unpredictable phase. Developments over the next few months and years could determine the final contours of relations in Asia and the world,” former diplomat Ashok Sajjanhar recently wrote for the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, on the ‘India-ASEAN Partnership at 25’.
India and ASEAN account for 1.85 billion people — about 30% of the global population — and have a combined GDP of approximately $ 5.1 trillion. Together, they would form the third largest economy in the world. While economic and commercial interests have driven the engagement, geostrategic imperatives flowing from Chinese assertiveness are probably more important now. New Delhi has been vocal on developments in the Indo-Pacific region, and its quadrilateral meeting with the US, Japan and Australia on the margins of the East Asia and ASEAN Summits last November did not go unnoticed by either China or the ASEAN countries.
From shared concerns over terrorism to the enormous opportunities in trade and tourism, the India-ASEAN engagement has enormous relevance and potential. In 1994, Prime Minister Rao invited Singapore’s Prime Minister Goh to be the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day. Twenty-four years on, all 10 ASEAN leaders attended a historic India-ASEAN Summit and another Republic Day, in New Delhi to reassure them of a bold, actionable, time-bound strategic vision of their partnership for the next 25 years.It needs to be noted that ever since India launched its Look East policy in the 1990s following liberalisation of economic policies, its engagement strategy has been complemented by its civilisational links with the region. The present Government of India has injected a new element of dynamism by rechristening it as Act East policy.