India Deepens Ties With ASEAN – Analysis


Indonesia hosted the 43rd ASEAN Summit and related Summits at the capital city of Jakarta. Two days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to welcome leaders of more than 43 countries for the G-20 Summit that India was hosting on 8-9 September 2023, Prime Minister Modi travelled to Jakarta to participate in several key summits, including the 20th ASEAN-India Summit and the 18th East Asia Summit on 6-7 September.

Like Indian capital city of Delhi decorated with a clean bridal look for the G-20 summit, Jakarta too was all decked up for the summits. The ASEAN-India Summit was the first Summit since the elevation of ties between India and the Association of South East Asian Nations bloc of countries to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2022.   

The summit reviewed the progress of India-ASEAN relations and charted the future direction of cooperation. The East Asia Summit provided an opportunity for leaders of ASEAN countries and its eight dialogue partners, including India, to exchange views on issues of regional and global significance. For the past few years, India-ASEAN ties have seen significant upswing. The focus has been boosting cooperation in the areas of trade and investment, besides security and defence. 

The theme for this year’s summit was “ASEAN Matters: Epicentrum of Growth”, indicating that the ASEAN as an organisation shall be the catalyst for regional economic growth. Started in 2002 in Cambodia, India’s summit with the 10-member grouping consisting of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia on an annual basis have witnessed ties grown significantly with trade and investment flows making perceptible progress. Simultaneously, backed by civilizational links and sizable number of Indian diaspora, the people-to-people contacts have too seen growth. 

In August 2023, the economic ministers of India and the bloc countries met in Indonesia. During the latest summit, both sides reviewed the India-ASEAN Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA), which was signed in 2009. A joint committee agreed to a regular, quarterly schedule of negotiations. It was agreed to review the ASEAN-India FTA in 2025. It may be recalled that Prime Minister Modi had visited Jakarta in 2018 at the invitation of Indonesian President Widodo. In 2022, India and ASEAN celebrated the 30th anniversary during which leaders of both sides agreed to strengthen cooperation and elevate relations to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. At the bilateral level, India and Indonesia resolved to take bilateral relationship into a new era.                

Why is the summit diplomacy important in contemporary times? The significance of the summits lies in the fact that these provide opportunities for leaders of participating countries to meet, share their countries’ views on bilateral, regional and global issues so that ways can be found to resolve contentious issues for global good. The presence of Indian prime ministers in all the summits underscores the continuity of India’s pro-active engagement with the bloc. For record, India has not missed a single ASEAN-India summit since 2002 when it started in Cambodia. For Prime Minister Modi, it was the 9th summit and the first one since the relations were elevated to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2022.

As expected, in view of China’s expanding military footprint in far beyond its shores dominated discussion. A new initiative to boost military security cooperation was announced after Prime Minister Modi had discussion with the bloc leaders. Since the G-20 summit was to follow soon, it was one of Modi’s shortest visits. The current chair had to make adjustments in the schedule for Modi’s participation in both the summits and facilitate his early return. In view of the tight schedule, no bilateral meetings were possible.  

Other areas discussed were cooperation on digital economy, cyber security and carving out new areas of mutual interests for future cooperation. Following the commemorative summit on 12 November 2022, India and Cambodia co-chaired the maiden ASEAN-India defence ministers meeting in Siem Reap on 22 November 2022. The two sides conducted their first maritime exercise in the first week of May 2023. Further, the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference with India (PMC +1) was held in Jakarta on 13 July 2023. During this time, the Annex to the Plan of Action to Implement the ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress, and Shared Prosperity (2021-2025) was adopted.  

The relationship with the ASEAN is a central pillar of India’s Act East policy and the vision for the wider Indo-Pacific. Both sides share a similar vision for the Indo-Pacific and are committed to the building on the synergy between the ASEAN’s outlook on the Indo-Pacific and India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative. India has also focused on increasing connectivity in the physical, digital and economic domains. 

At bilateral level, India and Indonesia launched direct flights through two private airlines in August 2023. India has also direct flights to Vietnam. India and Singapore inked the real-time cross-border payment systems in February 2023. Similar arrangements are being explored with other members in the bloc.

As civilizational partners, India and ASEAN together share 7 per cent of the world GDP and 26 per cent of the world population. This makes their combined strength phenomenal. India-ASEAN trade has been in upswing during the post-Covid period. When the first summit was held in 2002, bilateral trade was just $9 billion. In 2023, this is likely to cross $150 billion. As Malaysia has started to trade with India in local currency, this is likely to get a further fillip. In terms of two-way investment flows, it exceeded $100 billion during 2000-2022. Since weak connectivity hinders further progress, India has prioritised a series of physical and digital connectivity projects such as the Kaladan multi-modal transport project, Trilateral Highway, digital payment arrangement with Singapore, etc. India is also working on several flagship projects. 

Thus it transpires that the 20th ASEAN-India Summit proved yet another significant milestone in India’s relations with the ASEAN bloc. India and ASEAN are thus well positioned to deal with contemporary challenges.                    

Dr. Rajaram Panda

Dr. Rajaram Panda, Former Senior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, a think tank under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Former ICCR India Chair Professor, Reitaku University, Japan, and former Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi E-mail: [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *