By Rajeev Sharma
It is heartening to see that each of the ten Association of Southeast AsianNations (ASEAN) is now getting more focused attention from India. It’s not justtrade and commerce or security and counter-terrorism issues that necessitate a closer interaction between India and ASEAN but the strategic imperatives also demand that India continues to go down this road. Actually India ought to have started this at least a decade ago when China started its “string of pearls”strategy to ensure India’s strategic encirclement.
Thailand is an important ASEAN power and also a vibrant economy. As maritime neighbours, both India and Thailand face common security threats from emerging non-traditional challenges such asterrorism, security of sea lanes of communication and piracy and it is only in the fitness of things that the two sides are expanding their cooperation in thisregard. Both India and Thailand are in a position to play a key role in shaping the future of Asia. India’s ‘Look East’ policy and Thailand’s Look West policy compliment and reinforce each other as both seek to broaden the horizons of their cooperation with their neighbours.
India and Thailand work together in a numberof regional mechanisms such as the East Asia Summit, ASEAN, the ASEAN RegionalForum, BIMSTEC and the Mekong Ganga Cooperation initiative. The two countries share similar views on building an open and inclusive architecture of regional cooperation in Asia which enhances trust and confidence. In December this year, India would be hosting for the first time the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its Dialogue Partnership with the ASEAN.
India has embarked upon a strategic road with Thailand which should make China wary.More so because what India did with Thailand on January 25 was simply a carry forward of a similar diplomatic-strategic process it has begun in right earnest in 2011 with South Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam – countries which Chinaconstrues as its backyard. A new synergy in India –Thailand ties was visible onJanuary 25 when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh held delegation-level talks with his visiting Thai counterpart Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s first woman and youngest Prime Minister. India indulged in a bit of diplomatic symbolism by making Shinawatra the Chief Guest at this year’s Republic Day parade.
The Prime Ministers of India and Thailand agreed on a host of diverse issues ranging from defence and security to tradeand economic diplomacy. They agreed to expedite the conclusion of negotiationson a bilateral Free Trade Agreement that would include goods, services and investment. They signed the 2nd Protocol to amend the Framework Agreement for Establishing a Free Trade Area; concluded a revised Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement; and decided to step upbilateral cooperation and exchanges in the fields of defence, counter-terrorism and security. They signed a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation. In this context, the two sides concluded an Agreement on Transfer of Sentenced Persons. The Indian Prime Minister pointed out to Shinawatra the need to put in place a bilateral legal framework to deal with non-state actors and subversive elements that pose a common threat to both the countries.
The two Prime Ministers decided to work closely in building up the irinfrastructural linkages and linking the two countries physically with a1360-km-long highway passing through Myanmar. Also, with an eye on China, India is all set to get a strategic leverage in the Andaman Sea as Manmohan Singh offered Shinawatra support in the construction of a deep sea port at Dawei inthe south western coast of Myanmar, a country which figures prominently in the Chinese strategy of “string of pearls” vis a vis India by developing assets inthe Indian Ocean region.
To paraphrase India’s strategic thought in engaging Thailand, New Delhi is seekingto make its “maritime neighbor”, as Manmohan Singh described Thailand, into aneighbor that is connected by road. No deadline has been set for making the promised India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway a reality. The two sidesneed to set aside political hyperboles and get the project completed as early as possible. Getting it completed by 2015-16 will not be a bad idea, considering the bureaucracies work in this part of the world.
Infrastructure is an area of high priority or India as the country, along with international partners, is developing its road network, airports, ports, railways and power grids. Over one trillion USdollars would be spent in the infrastructure sector in next five years alone.The growing India-Thailand trade relations are set to reach next level as India anticipates more and more Thai companies making investments in India in several profitable fields. The challenge of overcoming the bottle neck of infrastructure deficiencies is being turned into a great business opportunity. India looks forward to Thai investment in the agro-processing sector to curb post-harvestwastage, which is unacceptably high (30-35% of total produce). Thai investors with their strengths in food processing would be welcome in developingcold-chains, ware houses etc. 100% FDI is allowed in this sector. India expects investments of US$ 200 billion in this sector and growth of 20% in the nextfive years.
India and Thailand have injected a new vigor into their bilateral trade. They multiplied their bilateral trade volume six times in the first decade of the 21st century.The current bilateral trade figure of $ 7.5 billion is set to double by 2015. The Dawei port project would provide a shorter shipping route and would help India get a quicker access to South East Asian markets as India has signed a Free Trade Agreement with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
During their delegation-level talks, Singh and Shinawatra were on the same page when it came to condemning terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and that there could be no justification whatsoever for any act of terrorism. They resolved to take their bilateral cooperation in combating terrorism and restricting transnational movement and unauthorized stay of known terrorists ineach other’s countries to another level. They decided to achieve this objective by sharing real time intelligence and developing more effective counter-terrorism policies together. They also decided to get their law enforcement agencies interact with each other on a more regular basis and provide assistance to each other in the areas of border and immigration control to stem the flow of terrorist related material, money and people and specific measures against transnational crimes. Last, but not the least, Thailand pledged support to India’s candidature for permanent membership of the United Nations’ Security Council.