ASEAN May Not Be Most Exciting, But It’s Certainly Not Unimportant
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, better known as the ASEAN, isn’t the most exciting of international groupings. It’s not a NATO or even an OPEC. It’s 10 countries in the region coming together for economic, social and cultural cooperation.
While it may not be exciting, it’s definitely not unimportant. The ten member countries have a combined population of over 600 million people and, if it was one single unit, it would be the fifth-largest economy in the world.
Security and regional stability are important goals as well, and in that domain, the South China Sea is the biggest issue on which the grouping needs to reach a consensus.
Formed in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, ASEAN now also includes Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Brunei. There is also the ASEAN Plus Three, which includes China, Japan and South Korea, and the East Asia Summit which includes all 13 of these as well as India, the US, Russia, Australia and the New Zealand.
India and ASEAN: A Brief History
India became a sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1992 and a full dialogue partner in 1996. It is also part of the ASEAN regional forum, which aims to maintain peace and security in the region. The two cooperate in numerous fields including agriculture, science and technology, tourism and connectivity.
In 2012, India and ASEAN commemorated 20 years of their partnership. While trade between India and ASEAN has been increasing significantly, the Free Trade Area agreement signed between the two in 2015 has received criticism in India domestically, because it hasn’t proved its benefits to the country yet. Imports from ASEAN to India are increasing, but exports haven’t been rising at the same pace.
Of the many projects undertaken since 2011, 13 have been completed, 17 are underway and 22 are in the planning stages.
India has had a Look East policy since 1991 but in 2014, Prime Minister Modi officially announced the Act East Policy, aimed at upping the ante on the ASEAN-India front.
There has been an increase in hostilities in the South China Sea region over the past few months and the ASEAN conference will see a greater push for a consensus between the members. It’s important that the grouping presents a joint front to China, but this has not happened yet. India and the individual members of ASEAN share growing defence and security relations, and Prime Minister Modi’s quick stop in Vietnam before heading to China for the G20 sent a strong message about India’s priorities in the region. The Prime Minister may take this opportunity, along with the other members of the East Asia Summit, to try and push for a consensus among the ten.
India-ASEAN economic cooperation and trade still have a long way to go relative to the India-China trade relationship. But India also needs to make sure that it reduces the imbalances that seem to have been an outcome of the FTA, and increases exports to the ASEAN nations.
The ASEAN may not be one of the most exciting groupings in the world and many have criticised its failure to become a more EU-like project, but its economic importance is quite established. India needs ASEAN, but ASEAN also sees India as an important player in the region, especially as it tries to counter Chinese influence.