Framework for India-ASEAN Summit: Act East, Tackle China & More
How the 69th Republic Day celebrations put an unprecedented spin to India’s Act East policy.
India is back to the strategic game of chess with China as it hosts the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit in New Delhi on 25–26 January. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and all ten ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) leaders will be holding free and frank discussions on the future of South-East Asian relations under the theme ‘Shared Values – Common Destiny’.
This is an unprecedented spin by India to its Act East foreign policy, as every year India normally has one visiting foreign dignitary as chief guest for Republic Day celebrations, but this time all the ten ASEAN leaders are the guests of honour.
- India will host leaders of 10 ASEAN countries as chief guests on 26 January for 69th Republic Day celebrations
- This will be a big push to India’s Act East policy, which is essentially aimed at countering China
- Trilateral highway, defence contracts, trade partnerships and other points will be up for discussion between India-ASEAN leaders
In the course of the last one year, India has been celebrating 25 years of India-ASEAN relations, 15 years of summit partnership with ASEAN and 5 years of India-ASEAN strategic partnership.
Act East Policy
India has many aces up its sleeve – primarily Vietnam. But countries like Laos and Cambodia are deeply entrenched in the Chinese sphere, while countries like Myanmar and Malaysia are unpredictable fence sitters.
Here is a quick run-down on India-ASEAN engagement in diverse fields and how the two sides are forging closer ties:
- It began last year in January with a conference in Jakarta that was held on cultural and civilisational linkages, and since then there have been 36 major activities that have taken place, not just in India but also in other ASEAN countries, to mark this very special relationship.
- In the run up to this summit, India organised another 16 major events. The first was External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to three ASEAN countries: Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore.
- Thailand is going to be the country coordinator for India-ASEAN relations from July onwards. Indonesia has the ASEAN Secretariat.
- Sushma Swaraj met the new Secretary General and apart from the bilateral and the joint commission meeting that was held in Indonesia, she also co-inaugurated the fifth round of the ASEAN India Network of think tanks with the Foreign Minister of Indonesia.
- Singapore has taken over from January at the new Chair of ASEAN, and in Singapore Swaraj hosted and participated in the Regional Pravasi Bharatiya Divas that recognises the importance of a very vibrant Indian diaspora in these ten ASEAN countries.
- A film festival focused on ASEAN is scheduled to be held in Goa and Assam in February. Why Assam, because north east is a very important component. They are the land bridge between India and the ASEAN countries particularly through Myanmar.
India–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway
It has been long in conception and implementation, but the India-Myanmar-Thailand Highway project is now on course and by 2019 it will be completed.
It will help in building a larger connect once India coordinates this with the ASEAN’s own master plan of connectivity. It will move beyond Thailand to other countries, including Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
In 2015, PM Modi had made an offer of $1 billion line of credit for physical and digital connectivity. And yet this connectivity is taking a lot more time despite the fact that it has been given a go-ahead signal by the top leadership of the countries involved.
The Ministry of External Affairs says it takes time for individual countries as far as India’s lines of credit or any development assistance programs are concerned.
India makes these offers which are demandable so it is really for the host country to determine. India doesn’t impose projects on them, they themselves decide so there has been some discussions, that offer stays on the table and India hopes that by the time the summit takes place there would be some request for concrete proposals which itself would be a good development.Preeti Saran, Secretary (East), MEA
India will hold a working group meeting of civil aviation officials to thrash out the broad contours of India-ASEAN air connectivity proposals which are under discussion.
India is also discussing the MoU and the agreements on how it can enhance further maritime connectivity.
In the last three years, to engage politically with ASEAN nations, Indian president, vice president and prime minister have visited all the countries themselves.
The South-East Asian region is economically very vibrant. The ASEAN region is India’s fourth largest trading partner and India is their seventh largest.
India has not received any specific requests from ASEAN countries for a line of credit, but such credits were offered to Vietnam and Indonesia. Indian lines of credit are intended for specific projects which are incumbent upon the host country to decide.
India also has a committed to a $100 million ASEAN-India Fund. There is $5 million ASEAN-India Green Fund and another $5 million for the ASEAN-India Science & Technology Fund.
ASEAN nations participated in the India-ASEAN FTA (Free Trade Agreement) on goods, services and investments.
India has strong defence ties with specific countries, except for Laos. India has great maritime relations with each of the other nine ASEAN countries. India has strong navy-to-navy linkages with Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.
ASEAN member countries actively participate when India holds the international fleet review.
On the defence side, India is working very closely with some of the ASEAN countries. There are important programs on capacity building with individual countries.
Oil and Gas
ASEAN nations like Brunei are rich in fossil fuel. In Vietnam, ONGC Videsh has already setup. When the Prime Minister of Vietnam visited New Delhi in 2014, it was agreed that more productive oil blocks will be offered to India.
Indian companies that are already active and present are willing to participate both in upstream, midstream and downstream projects in these countries.
(Rajeev Sharma is a strategic analyst and columnist who tweets @Kishkindha. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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