India and the ASEAN: A Pivotal Relationship

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is scheduled to attend the 11th ASEAN-India Summit and 8th East Asia Summit (EAS) in the Bruneian capital of Bandar Seri Begawan on 10 October 2013. The Prime Minister's hosts, the 10-member ASEAN, would expect New Delhi to continue to play a role in the region that behoves India's economic size and strategic prowess.

The India-ASEAN relationship has entered its third decade. India became a sectoral partner of ASEAN in 1992, a dialogue partner in 1996 and a summit level partner at Phnom Penh in 2002. At the Bali Summit in 2003, India and the ASEAN signed the Instrument of Accession to the treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South East Asia, a framework agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and a joint declaration for cooperation to combat international terrorism.

The Vientiane summit of 2004 was a milestone in India-ASEAN relations. The ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity and the Plan of Action to implement it were finalised. The first plan of action was implemented from 2004-10. The second plan of action for 2010-15 has been adopted and being implemented.

In December 2012, New Delhi hosted the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit to mark 20-years of its association with the grouping and 10-years of its summit level partnership. It also marked the two decades of India's 'Look East Policy' and that of its economic liberalisation process. The India-ASEAN relationship was elevated to a strategic partnership at the 2012 meeting. The leaders also adopted a vision statement or a blueprint for the future India-ASEAN cooperation.

The last two decades of India-ASEAN dialogue has led to a deepening of cooperation across the three pillars of their relationship - politico-military, economic and socio-cultural. The India-ASEAN dialogue currently has 26 inter-governmental mechanisms that cover a wide spectrum of areas.

India's 20-year-old engagement of the ASEAN countries has made India's first PM Jawaharlal Nehru's words in the Discovery of India in 1944 prophetic. Nehru wrote: "The Pacific is likely to take the place of the Atlantic in the future as the nerve centre of the world. Though not directly a Pacific state, India will inevitably exercise an important influence there. India will also develop as the centre of economic and strategic importance in a part of the world which is going to develop in the future."

As if gazing at a crystal ball, Nehru further wrote that "India will have to play a very great part in security problems of Asia and the Indian Ocean, more especially of the Middle East and South East Asia" and that "India is the pivot around which these problems will have to be considered."

The developments of the last few years in the South East Asian and Far Eastern regions and the expectations that the ASEAN member countries have from India to provide leadership at a difficult period seem to confirm what Nehru saw clearly 70-years back. India has been a source of strength for most ASEAN countries for its unequivocal stand on maritime disputes. India supports unimpeded rights of passage and other maritime rights in accordance with the international law. New Delhi has welcomed the decision to implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and that countries in the region adopt a code of conduct on the basis of consensus.

Prime Minister Singh's talks with other ASEAN leaders at Bandar Seri Begawan are expected to take forward the various facets of the strategic partnership, particularly in the trade sector. India and the ASEAN members have concluded negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement in Services and Investments which is likely to be inked by this year-end. The negotiations on coming to a common ground on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP have begun. Its first round was held in Brisbane in September this year.

The above agreements are likely to increase the India-ASEAN trade. The total India-ASEAN trade increased by 37 percent in 2011-12 to reach US$ 79.3 billion, surpassing the trade target of US$ 70 billion by 2012. The target is to achieve trade worth $100 billon by 2015 and $200 billion by 2022. But to put this success into context, China-ASEAN trade was US $100 billion way back in 2005 and now exceeds $400 billion.

In the past year, New Delhi has tried to fulfil some of the agenda of the vision statement signed in December 2012. The ASEAN-India Centre was inaugurated in New Delhi on 21 June 2013. It will be a resource centre for India-ASEAN strategic partnership. The External Affairs Ministry is also setting up a separate ASEAN-India Trade and Investment Centre.

Another area of focus is improving land, sea and air connectivity. New Delhi has started the annual ASEAN Connectivity Coordinating Committee with a meeting in June this year. The India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway is expected to be completed by 2016 and is expected to boost growth in India's northeast region.

India is also supporting the ASEAN Community which is to take shape by 2015 and a Drug-Free ASEAN by 2015. India and the ASEAN have regular people to people exchanges as well through programmes for ASEAN students, farmers, diplomats, media and strategic communities.

The Prime Minister will also attend the 8th East Asia Summit (EAS). The EAS was set up in 2005 when the then president of the Philippines Gloria Arroyo called upon the ASEAN to "embrace China, Japan, South Korea and India" in a larger grouping that may be better able to "hold its own" in when negotiating with the US or the European Union.

The EAS, which later included Australia, New Zealand, the US and Russia as well, is a 'leaders led' forum for dialogue on broad strategic, geopolitical and economic issues of mutual interest and to engender peace, security, stability and economic prosperity in the region. This year US President Barack Obama will have to skip the EAS because of domestic compulsions.

Prime Minister Singh will meet his Australian counterpart the newly elected Tony Abbott on the sidelines of the EAS. It is likely that India and Australia take forward their negotiations to agree to a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement that would enable India to import Australian uranium. Australia has one third of the world's known reserves of uranium.

India will also table a Memorandum of Understanding on the creation of the Nalanda University at this year's EAS. The EAS has been supportive of the initiative. At Brunei India would begin the process of signing of the MoU with those countries which have completed their internal approvals. India is also working with EAS member countries to augment collective capacity for disaster relief and rescue. India will push for greater discussion on the EAS Declaration on Connectivity that it adopted at its sixth summit as New Delhi believes there is scope for greater cooperation among EAS members in this important area.

The leaders are expected to adopt the Declaration of the 8th East Asia Summit on Food Security.