By Sonam Chaudhari*
India and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries – Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam – have had very close and deep cultural, civilization ties dating back to the ancient times.
In modern times, relations with ASEAN have become one of the prominent features of Indian foreign policy, in particular after the 1990s. 1990 marked a big transition time for Indian well as world politics. At the start of the decade, India was suffering from the Balance of Payment (BoP) crisis. The global community was experiencing the collapse of USSR. At the regional level, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was showing its failure. It was about the same period when the ASEAN rose as a good model of regional integration. Thus, a prudent Indian foreign policy in the post-liberalization era was devised in which the relationship with South East Asia entered a new era.
The present India –ASEAN relations is the result of the significant changes that have been happening in the political and economic domains of India’s foreign policy since the early 1990s. The ‘Look East Policy’ was launched under the leadership of Prime Minister Narsimha Rao and endorsed by the former Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. However, this Policy did not get much momentum at the diplomatic level and was focused largely on trade and economics. ASEAN was seen primarily as a trading zone and less in terms of developing Indian’s foreign policy along strategic lines. Hillary Clinton, the then US Secretary of State, during her visit to India in 2011 said that India should not merely “look” towards the East, but more importantly, “act” and “engage” with the East.
In a major shift in the Indian foreign policy outlook towards the ASEAN region , the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November 2014 redefined the strategic importance of India –ASEAN relations. India’s ‘Look East Policy’ has now been morphed into a more assertive ‘Act East Policy’.
After holding the office the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi made it clear that one of the major priorities for developing Indian foreign policy was entering into a new era of relationship with ASEAN member states. Bilateral visits to ASEAN member states became much more prominent. During her visit to Singapore, India’s foreign minister Mrs. Sushma Swaraj categorically articulated the need for an Act East policy, “Look East is no longer adequate; now we need Act East policy”.
After the inauguration of its Look East policy towards ASEAN, India became a sector partner of ASEAN in 1992 and a dialogue partner and member of the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1996. India and ASEAN entered into a summit partnership in 2002 and launched negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in goods in 2003. In December 2012, India and ASEAN member states leaders met in New Delhi to commemorate the 20th anniversary of India’s sectoral dialogue partnership with the ASEAN and the 10th anniversary of their annual summits. The summit saw the two sides elevating their ties to the level of a strategic partnership and culminated in the ASEAN-India Vision Statement which envisioned the upcoming course of this ‘ever–strengthening’ association. India has lent vigorous support to ASEAN centrality, the ‘Initiative for ASEAN Integration for Narrowing the Development Gap’, the ‘Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity’ and a ‘Drug Free ASEAN’ by 2015.
Commerce, culture and connectivity are the three pillars of India’s robust engagement with ASEAN. At the time of India–ASEAN Summit in Myanmar in November 2014, Modi observed, “no other forum brings together such a large collective weight of global population, youth, economy and military strength. Nor is any other forum so critical for peace, stability and prosperity in Asia-Pacific and the world”. This statement reflects that India prioritizes strong relations with ASEAN for the peace and stability in the world.
Although ASEAN has always been seen by India with ‘economic optimism’ but this time much focus was given upon the security. Indian prime minister noticed the importance of the peace and stability in the ASEAN region for the good economic growth and trade relations.
Similar to other regional organizations in the world ASEAN is also giving much focus to the security. The recent India-ASEAN meeting in the Vietnam the Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his deep concern at the rising ‘export of terror’ and said that, “it is a common security threat to the region as he sought a coordinated response from ASEAN member nations to combat the menace”. He also pointed out the radical ideology based hatred and extremism as another kind of security threats which can make promote the instability in the region.
Modi gave much emphasis on the political cooperation to tackle these kinds of threats he added that, “in the face of growing traditional and non-traditional challenges, political cooperation was a key emerging in our relations”. According to the changing nature of the non-traditional security threats, Modi also put emphasis on the cyber security to deal the radical terrorism.
During the 14th India- ASEAN Summit, great emphasis was given to the connectivity between the India and ASEAN region. This connectivity is related to the cultural level, people-to-people connectivity, connectivity through the land, sea and air for the good trade as they are the ‘life lines of global trade’ and also said that the “seamless digital connectivity between India and Southeast Asia is a shared objective. India committed to Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity”,
In the South China Sea, India has always supported the freedom of navigation, importance of international law and peaceful resolution of the disputes based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and launched involved in the peaceful activities in the South China Sea with the ASEAN member countries. In September 2014, India and Vietnam issued a joint communiqué opposing threats to freedom of navigation and use of coercion in the South China Sea and In June 2015 Indian four ship naval flotilla visited to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia, as part of a visit to the South China Sea.
India-ASEAN relations as of now are now stronger than ever. Both parties recognize and understand the importance of each other not only as a trading partner but also in the field of regional security and building peace and stability. Post the ASEAN Summit in 2016, ASEAN countries are looking forward to much more active Indian presence in the maritime area in this region. This is an opportune moment for India to expand the horizon of its presence from Indian Ocean and think beyond the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Aden.
*Sonam Chaudhari is a Research Scholar at the Centre for European Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected]