August 07, 2015
Hon Dato Seri Reezal Merican Naina Merican, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia
H.E. General V. K. Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs of India.
Ambassador V. P. Hirubalan, Deputy Secretary General of ASEAN Tan Sri Rastam Mohd Isa, Chairman & Chief Executive, ISIS Malaysia;
Ambassador V.S. Sheshadri, Vice Chairman, RIS;
Distinguished representatives from Think Tanks from India and ASEAN Member States;
Ladies and Gentlemen,
- It’s a privilege for me to be amongst you today. I have followed with great interest the engaging discourse of the ASEAN India Network of Think Tanks Meetings, the last of which was held in Hanoi in August 2014. I am eagerly looking forward to today’s discussions, which will undoubtedly be as stimulating and productive.
- India’s relations with ASEAN, elevated to strategic partnership level in 2012, are a cornerstone of our foreign policy and the foundation of our ‘Act East Policy’. The relationship stands on three pillars – politico-security, economic-commercial and socio-cultural, all of which have witnessed a burgeoning over the years. I will dwell briefly on all of them, and throw up some questions which this Roundtable could, perhaps, debate.
- The most significant event on the politico-strategic front this year is that we are commemorating the 10th anniversary of the East Asia Summit, an ASEAN-led process spanning the Asia-Pacific.
- The EAS, as the only forum in the East Asia region to be led by Leaders of participating countries, has a significant role in the strategic, geopolitical and economic evolution in East Asia. In the ten years since its inception, it has grown in stature to become the premier forum for addressing geo-strategic and geo-political issues. At the same time, we have also witnessed a steady proliferation of functional collaboration under the EAS rubric in the six priority areas, namely education, energy and environment, finance, disaster management, global health and pandemics and connectivity.
- Against this backdrop, the ongoing debate on strengthening the EAS is centered on whether the EAS process should focus more on strategic political-security issues or on developmental cooperation.
- A related point to ponder is whether the existing regional architectures are sufficient to secure regional peace and security or do we need to establish new regional security arrangements, and what should be the geographical perimeters of such security arrangements? Further, how does ASEAN ensure that it continues to remain central to the evolution of the regional security architectures and infact, drives it?
- India has been clear and emphatic in its support for ASEAN centrality in the evolving regional architectures. We also believe that any future regional security framework must be centred on the EAS as the premier forum for Leaders-led dialogue on strategic issues. So our efforts should be directed at consolidation of the EAS and the ASEAN-centric processes instead of inventing new mechanisms or instruments. We were glad to see growing convergence on this viewpoint among the discussants at the 4th EAS Workshop on Regional Security Architecture that we co-hosted with Cambodia in Phnom Penh on 20-21 July 2015.
- While politics is important, trade and commerce provide the werewithal to sustain a relationship in the 21st century. The current state of the economic relationship between India and ASEAN can be seen as half full or half empty, depending on your perspective. Both India and ASEAN have emerged as key drivers of economic growth for the Asia-Pacific, and, indeed, the world, yet there is large untapped potential for business.
- The ASEAN-India Trade-in-Goods Agreement signed in 2009 has helped in bringing about steady increase in trade volumes. During the year 2014-15, ASEAN-India trade stood at USD 76.58 billion, growing at an average annual growth rate of 12%, up from USD 44 billion during the year 2009-10. However, it remains relatively low when compared with the other Dialogue Partners of ASEAN.
- Nevertheless, in terms of two-way FDI flows, the India–ASEAN region has significantly outpaced many other regions of the world. Over the past seven years, USD 25 billion of FDI equity has come into India from ASEAN countries and USD 31 billion of Indian equity has found its way into ASEAN.
- We are, therefore, quite optimistic that mutual investment opportunities arising from the realisation of the ASEAN Economic Community and the Indian Government’s emphasis on ‘Make in India’, ‘Digital India’, ‘Skilling India’ and ‘Smart Cities’ initiatives, coupled with the entry into force of the ASEAN-India Trade-in-Services and the ASEAN-India Investment Agreements this year would open up further avenues to channelize more big-ticket investments both ways. This, in turn, would will help in augmenting bilateral trade in goods as well.
- India is partnering ASEAN countries and its 5 other FTA partners in the ongoing negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). We have common objectives relating to enhancement of our production and manufacturing networks, the strengthening of our financial systems, the eradication of poverty, sustaining self-sufficiency in agricultural production and enhancing the availability of educational and employment opportunities for our youth.
- It is, however, important to keep in mind that given the reality of mega-regional FTAs in Asia, both ASEAN and India will have to accelerate the pace of their economic reform processes in order to effectively participate in and benefit from the trade creation possibilities under RCEP.
- Moreover, to socialise the benefits of the FTAs among the user business communities, we have to encourage more and more business fairs, conclaves, seminars and symposia, and primarily support and strengthen the interaction between private sectors of India and ASEAN member countries.
- It would be quite useful if economists from India and ASEAN could partner in bringing out a simple, user-friendly handbook on how to utilise the ASEAN-India FTA. That is a thought that I leave with you to take forward.
- Two factors that have a significant bearing on trade and investment are connectivity and access to infrastructure finance. Connectivity in all its dimensions is indeed receiving the highest priority on the ASEAN-India cooperation agenda. We are working to create a Special Facility for project financing and quick implementation of connectivity projects with ASEAN, whereby industry could receive government support for investments in connectivity projects with the ASEAN region.
- This initiative is expected to provide a further fillip to trade and investment as well as to integrating our producers and manufacturers in regional value chains. Our Ministry of Commerce and Industry is also working on a Project Development Company to nurture businesses in CLMV countries, with a view to expanding our trade and investment relations.
- Work on both the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multimodal Transit Transport project is progressing apace. We have just concluded negotiations on a Trilateral Motor Vehicle Agreement, and are also negotiating a Maritime Transport Cooperation Agreement with ASEAN in order to strengthen maritime connectivity. Our experiment of a direct fortnightly freighter with Myanmar has proven to be commercially feasible and we are open to replicating this experiment with other ASEAN Member States.
- In this regard, we would appreciate the help of our think tank community to conduct feasibility studies to ascertain the viability of projects before venturing into a coastal shipping network linking India with ASEAN Member States. Such studies could be undertaken in a phased manner and we could prioritise countries and ports to look at on the basis of desktop studies based on current trade volume, cargo profile and future potential.
- Similarly, we need in-depth research on trade, tourism and business spin-offs that more liberalised air services arrangements covering passenger, cargo and technical services between India and ASEAN Member States would entail for both sides, to guide us in our discussions on enhancing air connectivity. This could be another research proposition from our side for the ASEAN-India Centre and its partner think tanks from ASEAN Member States.
- India and Southeast Asia share rich and deep cultural linkages, which is reflected in our art and architecture, cuisine, dance and music, social mores and value systems, and indeed in many facets of our daily lives.
- I had touched upon these issues at some length during my address at the first international conference on ASEAN-India Cultural Links that the ASEAN-India Centre organised last fortnight in New Delhi. Some of the key points I made were that the destinies of South-East Asia and India have been linked for the past two millennia. Our cultural contacts date back to the 1st century A.D., from the Pyu settlements of Myanmar, to the Dvaravati cultural areas in Thailand, to the thriving Kingdoms of Cham. From the 4th century A.D. onwards, trade thrived along the maritime routes under the Gupta and Chola dynasties. Ships sailed from the ancient port of Tamralipti in Orissa to the Malay Peninsula. Religious linkages were forged, among others, by Emperor Ashoka, who sent Buddhist emissaries throughout South East Asia. Buddhism, once transmitted from India to the East, was localised, re-created and diffused again through different parts of Asia, including India.
- Religious links also took with them linguistic, architectural and literary influences. Indian mythology and folklore was assimilated into the local mythology of the South East Asian region, with many forms of the ‘Ramayana,' being popular throughout the region. Even today, we find many words in modern day South East Asian languages originating from Sanskrit. Ancient styles of theatre production, plays and dance forms in South East Asia also bear an Indian imprint. Pantomimes such as the Khon depicting the Ramayana and dance-drama forms such as the Lakon of Thailand resonate with the ancient Indian styles of theatre.
- Hundreds of thousands of Indians have emigrated to South East Asia in the last 200 years. Their descendants today constitute a vibrant community of Indian origin people, contributing actively to their respective countries of adoption. Malaysia alone has nearly 2 million persons of Indian origin, constituting the second largest Indian diaspora abroad.
- India and ASEAN are today at the threshold of a qualitatively more substantive and reinvigorated relationship. Current initiatives for enhanced socio-cultural relations between India and South East Asia include, inter alia, numerous exchanges at the people-to-people level. The ASEAN-India Plan of Action for 2016-2021 will aim to strengthen the socio-cultural pillar of ASEAN-India engagement.
- Other initiatives include the Mekong Ganga Cooperation, which is aimed at reviving cooperation between the peoples of the Mekong and Ganga river basins in the fields of tourism, education, culture and promoting people-to-people contacts, as well as the re-establishment of the Nalanda University at Rajgir as a world-renowned knowledge hub. The initiatives celebrate and lend a contemporary dimension to the historical linkages that bind India and Southeast Asia.
- We would be happy to support research partnerships between universities and academics in India and ASEAN to research and produce high quality papers, audio-visual documentaries, etc. on the entire gamut of the historical and cultural links between India and Southeast Asia. We also propose to hold a Conference on India-ASEAN Cultural links in Jakarta in the coming months to take this initiative forward.
- The final session tomorrow will discuss the agenda for India’s engagement with ASEAN post-2015 and draw fresh perspectives on the opportunities and challenges as well as provide recommendations. We are looking forward to hearing your views at this session with special interest.
- ASEAN-India relations have a strong foundation to their partnership, across the three pillars. Our Ministers have, two days ago, endorsed the ASEAN-India Plan of Action for cooperation over the next five years, which is closely aligned with the post-2015 vision of ASEAN. We would see formal adoption of the Plan of Action at the 13th ASEAN-India Summit in November 2015.
- We are two years away from another historic milestone in our relationship. We will be celebrating 25 years of ASEAN-India Dialogue Relations and 15 years of Summit level interaction in 2017. It would be of immense interest to us to hear from all of you, creative suggestions on how we can commemorate this landmark in a befitting manner.
I thank you for your attention.