Over the last decade, India has made a significant effort towards establishing stronger ties with its eastern neighbours. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelling to Thailand for the East-Asia Summit recently, former ambassador Anil Wadhwa highlights the defining factors of the visit
Over the last few years, India has made substantive progress in its ties with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its related frameworks like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), and ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus (ADMM+). From a dialogue partner in 1996, India has come a long way to the status of a Summit-level Partner in 2002, and a Strategic Partner of ASEAN in 2012. India engages ASEAN in more than 30 high level dialogues in varied fields. Moreover, during the EAS, Prime Minister Narendra Modi also attended 16th India-ASEAN Summit, the 14th East Asia Summit, and the 3rd Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Summit.
At the ASEAN-India Summit (November 2 to 4, 2019) PM Modi appreciated the mutual coordination of the Indo-Pacific outlook between India and ASEAN, which sets out the vision of the centrality of South East Asia. He mentioned utilisation of the USD 1 billion credit line offered by India in 2015 for physical and digital connectivity. He also reiterated that India would like to strengthen its relationship with ASEAN in areas of maritime security, blue economy, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. India will offer 1,000 PhD scholarships to ASEAN students at the New Delhi-based Indian Institute of Technology, one of the most reputed technology institutes globally.
India needs deeper economic integration with the 1.85-billion strong people of ASEAN, with a combined GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of USD 3.8 trillion. The bilateral trade is currently at USD 81.33 billion. With ASEAN investing USD 68.91 billion between April 2000 to March 2018 into India, and India has invested USD 36.67 billion in ASEAN between 2007 and 2015. India, however, has not benefitted much from the ASEAN India FTA (Free Trade Agreement) in goods, and has been clocking deficits with most of the ASEAN countries. PM Modi, therefore, has welcomed the recent decision to review the ASEAN-India FTA.
The 14th East Asia Summit also focussed on security and cybercrime. There was a review of the future direction of EAS cooperation and exchange of views on regional and international issues. PM Modi proposed a new initiative for creating a safe and secure maritime domain in the Indo-Pacific region and also suggested an initiative to strengthen the blue economy (sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth). The EAS participants, besides ASEAN, include India, China, Japan, Republic of Korea, Australia, New Zealand, United States and Russia.
A resolute stand
During his visit, the Prime Minister also participated in the 3rd edition of the RCEP Summit. The RCEP is a proposed FTA with the 10 members of the ASEAN, along with its six partners — Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. However, on November 4, 16 of the participating nations issued a statement conveying that 15 among them had concluded text-based negotiations and will proceed to sign the agreement in 2020. After seven long years of negotiations, with significant issues that remain unresolved, the Indian delegation issued a final statement stating that its participation “will depend on satisfactory resolution of these issues”. Comprising half of the world’s population and accounting for nearly 40 per cent of global commerce and 35 per cent of GDP, the RCEP could have become the world’s largest free trade area, with India being the third largest economy, had it been a part of it. Interestingly, at the 14th East Asia Summit, India’s image was dramatically different from when the summit was first held in 2005.
“India has been proactively, constructively, and meaningfully engaged in the RCEP negotiations since inception but the draft RCEP agreement did not fully reflect the basic spirit and the agreed guiding principles of RCEP even as it did not address satisfactorily India’s outstanding issues and concerns.”
Prime Minister of India
It was heartening to see the independent representation that took into account associations other than ASEAN – be it recognising Japan’s importance as a sound capital base or the stoic exterior the country presented at the summit. The biggest takeaway from the summit was the acknowledgement of ASEAN leaders of India’s growing role in the Indo-Pacific region.
On the sidelines
The Prime Minister reiterated the importance of the trilateral highway linking India, Myanmar and Thailand and expressed that India was working hard towards the timely completion of the project.
At the ‘Sawasdee Modi community event in Bangkok, PM Modi unveiled the Thai translation of Thiruvalluvar’s Tamil classic, Tirukkural
At the meeting with PM Shinzo Abe of Japan, PM Modi focused on the forthcoming India – japan 2+2 dialogue and annual Summit meeting between the two leaders in December.
Vietnamese PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc and PM Modi talked of extremism and terrorism and their commitment to support the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Australian PM Scott Morisson and PM Modi reaffirmed their commitment to a transparent, free and open Indo – Pacific.
State Counsellor for Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi and PM Modi talked about air connectivity between them, and India’s plan to host a business event for CMLV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) in Yangon, Myanmar, at the end of November 2019.
PM Modi’s meeting with Indonesian PM Joko Widodo concentrated on bilateral trade and highlighted the need for greater market access for Indian goods.
In his meeting with Thai PM Prayuth Chan – Ocha, PM Modi emphasized the enhancement of connectivity between the two countries, including physical and digital connectivity.