By Izaaz Ahmed
Despite being a staunch supporter of the Non-Aligned Movement (M) during the Cold War phase, India’s leaning for the erstwhile USSR wasn’t hidden from public knowledge. Moreover, it wasn’t a departure from the then foreign policy of India. After all, picking up sides in a bi-polar world is something, and trying to emulate the economic model of one of those powers is another. Consequently, the USSR started helping India in many ways, and as such, the bilateral relationship blossomed. However, it took a downswing for India following the disintegration of the USSR in 1991. Soon it started looking for countries beyond the immediate neighbourhood – a prerequisite for economic integration with the rest of the world. It was in this context that India declared its Look East Policy.
Southeast Asia is known for its collective development. Unlike South Asia, whose regiol progress often runs into a logjam due to geopolitical reasons, Southeast Asian countries have formed a wonderful association in the form of a body called ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian tions). Formed in 1967 in Bangkok with an aim to promote socio-political and economic cooperation among the countries, the members of ASEAN include Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietm, Laos, Cambodia, Brunei, Philippines, Malaysia and Myanmar. While the need to develop the region was certainly the driving force behind the formation, ASEAN also acted as a satellite bloc of the capitalist world to check the growth of communism in Southeast Asia.
India’s engagement with ASEAN began in 1992 with the former’s role being limited to that of a sectoral dialogue partner. It was the year 1996 that gave India a significant headway when it became a full dialogue partner of ASEAN and a member of the ASEAN Regiol Forum (ARF). India was now, inter alia, eligible to express its views on all subjects. Moreover, the conclusion of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the body at the first India-ASEAN Summit, held in Cambodia in 2002, showed India’s seriousness of purpose behind engaging with ASEAN.
Though India is ASEAN’S 7th largest trading partner, Chi has been the largest trading partner for ASEAN since 2009, with the volume of trade expected to touch around 1 trillion US dollars by 2020. ASEAN is also important for India for the stability of the northeastern region. The dense forests of Myanmar have long been used by many militant outfits based out of Assam and galand to disrupt the law and order scerio in the region. Another cause of concern for India has been the Golden Triangle belt that runs across three ASEAN tions - Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. The profits realised from opium cultivation being done in these regions are clandestinely used for fincing terrorist activities in many countries including India.
In this backdrop, India has stepped up its ties with ASEAN. This was manifested nicely when the Look East Policy was changed to Act East Policy by the current NDA government. India also made history recently by inviting the heads of the 10 ASEAN countries to its 68th Republic Day Celebrations, thereby commemorating the completion of 25 years of the Indo-ASEAN ties. The Delhi Declaration, announced at the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit, reiterated the cooperation between the two across several sectors including defence, maritime security and fight against terrorism. It must be mentioned here that India has already made quite a mark in the ASEAN countries. India extended a fincial aid of 500,000 US dollars to Philippines for its battle against the IS in the troubled Mindao province. In fact, this was the first time India sent aid to another country to help it fight terrorism. India has also raised its voice against the violation of UNCLOS (United tions Convention on the Law of the Sea) by Chi. It has lobbied for the maritime rights of Vietm in the South Chi Sea, as well as for other ASEAN countries. In 2014, an agreement was concluded by which India agreed to provide 100 million dollar line of credit to Vietm.
Of late, India has also started considering the oil reserves of Myanmar to meet its growing energy needs. Indonesia, with its vast hydrocarbon reserves, has also piqued India’s interest. The tion also trades vigorously with Indonesia so much so that it has resulted in a negative balance of trade for India, whose chief imports from ASEAN include edible oils, coal and crude petroleum.
India definitely shares a robust relationship with ASEAN. Both the parties have come a long way from being allies to strategic partners. The fact that there are as many as 30 dialogue mechanisms between the two bears a testimony to that. The existing arrangement of the ASEAN-India Annual Bilateral Summit that’s been active since 2002 has helped in keeping the relations result-oriented and animated. However, India has a long way to go. Consequently, it should play to its strengths, find new markets for things like pharmaceutical products, and reduce the trade deficit with ASEAN.