Walking the talk on Act East: How India can reach out to Asean nations

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the ASEAN Heads of State / Governments and ASEAN Secretary General at the ASEAN India Commemorative Summit, in New Delhi. (Photo: PTI)
The India-Asean commemorative summit saw the presence of the leaders of all ten member states of Asean not only at the summit but as guests of honour at the Republic Day Parade. The summit was the 25th anniversary of the sectoral partnership, the 20th anniversary of the dialogue partnership and the fifth anniversary of the strategic partnership enunciated at the 20th anniversary commemorative summit in 2012. The ten leaders’ presence along with PM Modi on this occasion indicates that India’s engagement with Asean as a whole is now close, and our recognition of them as neighbours.

The engagement builds on traditional relations between India and most Asean countries, and events such as the Ramayana festival, the startup hackathon, the youth and student exchanges manifest point to this. The diversity is institutionalised through the three pillars of Asean community building — socio-cultural, economic and politico-strategic. The socio-cultural aspects are varied and deep and continue unabated. The economic pillar was the main focus of the 2012 commemorative summit, when the Asean-India Free Trade Agreement in services was signed and negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) began. Our “Act East” policy since 2014 added to this through a $1 billion line of credit for connectivity projects and a Rs 5 billion project development fund.

The latest summit saw a transition to the politico-strategic pillar, with the leaders specifically focusing on maritime security cooperation. The visits of Indian dignitaries to most Asean countries in the last three years, the altered situation in the South China Sea, the disruptive approach of China and the diminished role of the United States, among others, put pressure on Asean, its principles and its centrality in the region. The Indo-Pacific as a concept thus assumes significance, as also the re-emergence of the Quad.

The summit focused on the strategic aspects — how to keep our region at peace and maintain healthy economic growth. After all, the future of 25 per cent of humanity is at stake. Most of them are young and cherish democratic values.

The summit looked at the current scenario and reaffirmed that member states will continue to work with East Asian partners (Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Russia and the US) to promote common principles. The Quad will assist Asean in its objectives. The trust deficit among regional players has widened, with China and North Korea trying to alter the regional balance for different ends. The summit recognised that unresolved territorial claims on the sea and land continue to accentuate problems in the region and are connected to terrorism, illegal migration and poaching of fish. It also recognised that the change in the region since 2012 has been palpable and a threat to our quest for peace and stability. This resulted from China’s disruptive actions. This calls for greater responsibility to maintain the Asean way and its centrality, while the equilibrium in the Indo Pacific needs careful management to prevent hegemonic expansion.

Thus, in the Delhi Declaration, India has unequivocally endorsed the continuing centrality of Asean in the region, and Asean has thanked India for this. What is new is the enunciation on terrorism, its financing and its cross-border variety. The radicalisation of youth in some Asean countries and cross-border activity in the Sulu region resonated with India, which has concerns on this issue. The Asean political security community has clear goals of democracy and reform, for which India is a good model to emulate and cooperate with. For instance, the Rohingya issue causes some of Myanmar’s Asean partners anxiety, and India’s quiet diplomacy and support for the development of Rakhine state are seen as positive incremental steps in the Asean mould. Asean’s respect for the non-intrusive nature of Indian diplomacy is palpable.

While the 2012 summit concluded with a vision document, the new joint statement, keeping in tune with the Act East policy, is a clearer Delhi Declaration. It shows recognition of our international commitments to charters and legal instruments in the quest to have a rule-based order in our region. Further, it recognises the institutional arrangements between India and Asean, and instead of setting up new ones, expects them to be effectively utilised.

The most significant aspect of the Delhi summit is that despite the growing Chinese presence in the Asean region, member states collectively stood on a common platform with India. They did not hesitate to take up maritime security and cooperation as the major issue and were forthcoming on common endeavours against terrorism. The close cooperation on non-traditional threats will be enhanced and the India-Asean relationship will expand in more varied and diverse ways. India’s effort to convey to Asean its position as a neighbour and Asean’s recognition of it through the request to expand the trilateral highway and connectivity are more than symbolic.

While the economic pillar needs much more attention with an early conclusion of the RCEP with mutual respect for each other’s concerns, the desire for physical, air, maritime and digital connectivity for mutual advantage is clear. Our institutions and financial packages are in place, but need more business-to-business vigor with Asean countries, which need to show a greater welcome for Indian endeavours. Trade and investment relations are with a few Asean countries — mainly Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia — but there is need for greater outreach to others. The India-Asean business summit needed more B2B players, as governments have already endorsed this pillar.

India now needs to do more in the economic area under its Act East policy, to build connectivity and invest in creating value chains, so that integration with Asean countries can succeed. Capacity building in the CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos Myanmar and Vietnam) has been lauded and the need to deal with each Asean member on the basis of its own strength and opportunities is clear. The biggest takeaway is the politico-security engagement, which will be buttressed with closer economic interaction, especially between companies and institutions.  
The writer is a former Indian Ambassador to Indonesia and Asean

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