Having completed 25 years of engagement with the ASEAN bloc, India is faced with pushing ties onto the next level even as the Southeast Asian grouping is coming under increasing strain. Beijing’s muscle flexing in the South Chi Seas has pushed ASEAN members like Philippines and Vietm against the wall, while Cambodia and Laos remain firmly in Chi’s camp. Attending the 14th ASEAN-India and 11th East Asia summits in Laotian capital Vientiane, Prime Minister rendra Modi has pointedly reiterated India’s ‘principled’ support in keeping sea and air routes open for free commerce under UN laws. He has also taken the opportunity to hit out at Chi’s all-weather ally Pakistan, calling for strongest possible action against states ‘that use terrorism as an instrument of state policy’. Given Chi’s clout, the two summit meets are unlikely to see a tough stand against that country’s aggressive policy. As for India, the upgrading of its ties with Vietm to ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ and deeper trade relations with Singapore has sent out clear sigls of its positioning in the regiol bloc. For the Northeast, more significant will be the outcome of bilateral meetings on the sidelines with the Myanmar delegation headed by Aung San Suu Kyi.
While Myanmar president U Htin Kyaw’s visit to India last month had a much positive outcome including MoUs on infrastructure development, it is Suu Kyi who holds de-facto power in Myanmar. It is significant that Suu Kyi chose Chi as the first country to visit after her party NLD took the lead in government formation early this year, and Beijing has wooed her assiduously. Before his departure to Laos, Prime Minister Modi had stated that ‘Southeast Asia is the key to the economic development of India’s Northeastern region’. In particular, better physical and digital connectivity along with more people-to-people and institutiol linkages with ASEAN is vital for the NDA government’s ‘Act East’ policy, the PM said. In the India-Myanmar context, it is security cooperation at the border, physical connectivity and economic integration that is at the heart of bilateral diplomatic efforts. But the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, the Kaladan multimodal project and the proposed bus service between Imphal and Mandalay are all taking their time. These projects promise to do wonders for key border places like Moreh of Manipur and Lawngtlai of Mizoram in the Northeast, and thereby enhance India-ASEAN roadways and maritime connectivity. The Mekong-India Economic Corridor (MIEC) to link India with Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietm, and the proposed rail link between South and Southeast Asia to connect New Delhi with Hanoi, are still distant dreams at their present pace.
From a sectoral dialogue partner in 1992 to full dialogue partner in 1996, India has in phases upgraded its ties with the ASEAN to create a Free Trade Area in Goods (FTA) in 2009, which became more wide-ranging last year after agreements in 2014 on trade in services and investments. But the terms of trade are yet to favor India, as its exports have not kept pace with imports from ASEAN tions. ASEAN is India’s fourth largest trading partner, and the bilateral trade target has been set at 200 billion dollars by 2022. This will take some doing as India-ASEAN trade reached was just over 65 billion dollars in 2015-16. This can be compared with Chi, ASEAN’s largest trading partner, with their bilateral trade growing to 472.16 billion dollars last year. As for investments, while Chi has sunk in 8.15 billion dollars in ASEAN tions by 2015, India has maged just 1.2 billion dollars. So New Delhi has much catching up to do when it comes to countering Beijing’s clout in Southeast Asia. Still, Chi’s growing power now makes it imperative for the ASEAN bloc to cultivate relations with India, as well as with US, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, all of which are participants of the East Asia Summit that come under the SE Asian initiative. It is in this backdrop that India’s diplomatic efforts in 30 dialogue mechanisms with ASEAN covering various sectors, along with the Mekong-Ganga and Bay of Bengal rim countries initiatives — bear significance in the long run, especially for the Northeast.