By Harsh V Pant
Published: 16th August 2014
Addressing the 12th India-ASEAN Meeting in Nay Pyi Taw last week, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj rightly underlined that “the ASEAN-India strategic partnership owes its strength to the fact that our ‘Look East’ to ASEAN meets your ‘Look West’ towards India”. Swaraj has done well to reassure the region that the new Indian government would like to stand with them, taking the trajectories of common interests higher in the coming years, both in terms of achievement and relevance to the bilateral ASEAN+1 relationship and of the multilateral ambition at the regional and global levels. This is important because there is a lot of concern in the region about the viability of New Delhi as regional balancer, a role that became a casualty of the policy paralysis in the previous regime. Ironically, this happened at a time when the region has been passing through one of the most critical phases in its evolution.
This was evident last week when China dismissed a new US proposal for a freeze on hostile actions that could heighten tensions in the disputed South China Sea, leaving Washington unable to overturn an impression that it can do little to back up allies at odds with Beijing over the contested waters and islands. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) remains divided and hasn’t been able to mount a credible challenge to China. The ASEAN member-states have largely supported American suggestions for easing of tensions, including the start of negotiations for a binding regional “code of conduct” to govern activities involving conflicting claims. But China has resisted, and progress on the code has been slow. This has opened up crucial geopolitical space for India in the region.
In 2012, India and the 10 members of ASEAN marked their 20 years of partnership with a commemorative summit in New Delhi. The highlight of the summit was the conclusion of talks on Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on services and investment which is expected to increase bilateral trade to $200 billion by 2022 and lead to talks on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which also includes Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. As then Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh had underlined, together India and the ASEAN states “constitute a community of 1.8 billion people, representing one-fourth of humanity, with a combined GDP of $3.8 trillion” and therefore “it is only natural that India should attach the highest priority to its relationship with ASEAN”.
India was admitted as sectoral dialogue partner of the ASEAN in 1992 and went on to become a full-fledged dialogue partner in 1996. There has been a significant increase in India-ASEAN trade from $42 billion in 2008 to $80 billion in 2012. This trade relationship will get further boost with the two signing the FTA on services and investment. The FTA on goods was signed in 2010 despite some significant opposition in India and since its implementation last year India has been keen on expanding trade in services in order to leverage its own strengths. The relationship is now officially “strategic” with the two sides deciding to elevate their ties from a mere dialogue partnership.