Despite India’s last-minute refusal to join Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the mega free trade arrangement among ten ASEAN countries and five partner countries, there are important takeaways from the recently concluded 16th India-ASEAN Summit held at Bangkok. The Summit not only witnessed an intensification of strategic engagement between India and ASEAN but also mutual agreement in several crucial issue-areas. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his speech at the Summit, harped on ‘ASEAN centrality’ for the success of Act East Policy (AEP), the organization’s open support and endorsement of ‘Indo-Pacific Outlook’ for future engagement was a significant boost for India’s strategic pursuit.
Strengthening ‘Indo-Pacific Outlook’
Much to the consternation of China, ‘Indo-Pacific’- as a strategic construct proposed by the U.S. and pushed by India- has gained substantial ground in recent days. ASEAN that has not been forthcoming on its approach finalized ‘ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’(AOIP) in the Senior Officials Meeting held at Bangkok in June this year after more than a year of intense deliberations. The adoption of this outlook was very significant as it not only outlined ASEAN’s approach and vision but also signaled its intent to play a proactive role in the evolving geopolitical game in the region. The outlook, while affirming the centrality of ASEAN in Southeast Asia and surrounding regions, emphasized initiation of open, inclusive, transparent and rule-based order in Indo-Pacific, virtually echoing India’s stance. However, ASEAN chose to desist from putting out its perspective on contentious issues and strategic conflicts of the region, especially the South China Sea dispute, and thereby not antagonize China. Nonetheless, the finalization of the document itself can be considered a major step forward towards greater strategic alignment between India and ASEAN countries. India wholeheartedly welcomed the ASEAN outlook that lays out areas of cooperation for engaging with like-minded and friendly countries.
Most notably, the statement issued by Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Chairman of 35th ASEAN Summit, “appreciated India’s support of the AOIP and encouraged India to undertake cooperation with ASEAN in the key areas outlined in the AOIP, covering maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development, and economic cooperation”. It also emphasized joining hands with India in combating terrorism, and transnational crimes, and to strengthen the joint cybersecurity network through the implementation of the ASEAN Cybersecurity Cooperation Strategy and the ARF Work Plan on Security of and in the Use of Information and Communication Technologies.
Securing Greater Connectivity
On the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit, Prime Minister Modi met the leadership of key countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Japan, and Australia and discussed how to enhance partnership. The focus of these bilateral meetings and the Summit was on building greater engagement and integration among the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean countries towards building connectivity infrastructures and establishing both institutional as well as people-to-people linkages. Modi, in his speech, underlined the need for increasing people-to-people exchanges for ‘research, study, trade and tourism’ that would help capacity building and skill developments in fields like agriculture, science, engineering, and information and communications technology. It is noteworthy that India has already committed $1 billion lines of credit for augmenting road, sea, and air connectivity with ASEAN countries.
Both sides realize that economic exchanges require high and smooth connectivity among the countries. To tap the potential of a vast market of almost two billion people and more than US$5.5 trillion (S$7.5 trillion) in GDP, they agreed to work towards concluding all the ongoing connectivity projects including the ASEAN-India Air Transport Agreement and the ASEAN-India Maritime Transport Agreement, India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway (TH) and extension of TH to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport Project at the earliest. Also, cooperation in the maritime sector for greater security and connectivity received maximum attention by the leadership during the Summit. It must be noted here that before the Summit, Third ASEAN-India Workshop on Blue Economy was successfully concluded on 12 September 2019 in Bangkok, facilitating the exchange of knowledge and experience between ASEAN and India on Blue Economy relating to the sustainable use of marine resources, maritime connectivity, and diplomacy. There was a reaffirmation of commitment to strengthen ASEAN-India maritime cooperation through existing ASEAN-led mechanisms, such as the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF), to address common challenges on maritime issues that were mentioned in ASEAN Chairman’s statement.
Overall, there is a better convergence between India and ASEAN on crucial issues. ASEAN has assured India to look into its concerns with regard to RCEP and accommodate its interests without any hard feeling signaling constructive engagement on trade issues. India’s acceptance of ‘ASEAN centrality’ and ASEAN’s recognition of ‘Indo-Pacific’ as the reigning politico-security architecture and India’s important role in it might prove to be the strategic game-changer for the region.
*** The author is Director of Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies and currently working as assistant professor of political science at Ravenshaw University ***