The people of India (and visitors from abroad) will see—for the first time–the leaders of all 10 ASEAN member states watching the Republic Day parade next Friday (January 26) in New Delhi. It will be a historic moment, marking the warmth and depth of the India-ASEAN partnership in a way not seen before.
The special summit
A day earlier, the 10 leaders and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have participated in a special Commemorative Summit with a twin purpose: a) to showcase and celebrate the achievements of this multi-dimensional relationship; and b) to chart its future trajectory in the medium term. Their predecessors undertook a similar exercise at the Commemorative Summit held in New Delhi on 20 December 2012.
The summit on 25 January marks 50 years since ASEAN’s formation, 25 years of the India-ASEAN dialogue partnership, 15 years of summit-level partnership, and five years of a strategic partnership. It is the culmination of a long series of planned activities, including high-level interactions at the government, business and people’s levels. This series began with the exchange, in January 2017, of meaningful messages between the Indian prime minister and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, the country chairing ASEAN at the time. Singapore now holds the chair.
The fundamental significance of the summit stems from a context that is of recent origin: China’s rising aggressiveness in East Asia and its determined diplomacy in building relationships in South Asia at India’s expense. Thus, to the people of India, the summit will be affirmation that India has reliable friends in the region. To the people of the ASEAN countries, it will be confirmation that India serves as a valuable, though partial, balancer in the rapidly changing geopolitical dynamics.
Achievements so far
India’s links with South East Asia go back to ancient times, flourishing in cultural, trade and other domains, and at the people’s level, passing through various phases in the medieval and modern eras. In foreign policy terms, India’s ‘Look East Policy’, launched in 1992, which was transformed into the ‘Act East Policy’ in November 2014, contributed much to the strengthening and diversification of this partnership. Has it performed as per both sides’ expectations?
Official narratives tend to offer a positive response, with leaders and their spokespersons pointing to regular summits, exchange of VIP visits, 30 annual institutional mechanisms for dialogue, the five-year action plans on developing the relationship, and the availability of ample funds to finance various projects.
Critics usually paint the picture in darker hues, arguing that there has been a significant gap between declaration and delivery, words and action—on the part of both.
Where does the truth lie?
Reality check and future challenges
ASEAN–and the larger Indo-Pacific region–is a top priority for the country’s foreign policy today. Apart from the region’s strategic importance in global terms, our immediate neighbourhood in South East Asia is of immense relevance to the government’s endeavour to promote security and accelerate economic development in the North East. In fact, connecting the North East and Eastern India in general has been an integral element of the ‘Act East Policy.’
The articulation of political commitment to these objectives has been clear, consistent and strong. In the past three and a half years, India’s three highest ranking leaders have visited all the 10 ASEAN countries. New Delhi has also received top dignitaries from the region. Prime Minister Modi’s proactive participation in the past four India-ASEAN summits reflects the new vitality in these ties.
Political closeness and the ASEAN nations’ deepening worry over China’s behaviour have combined to spur progress in the areas of strategic convergence, defence cooperation, maritime security and a whole range of cooperative projects to counter non-traditional threats to security. However, despite working closely in ASEAN-related fora, there has been little progress in creating open and inclusive security architecture, and a rules-based framework of international behaviour that applies to all countries, big and small. This explains the recent re-emergence of the idea of the Quad, the incipient quadrilateral partnership, comprising the United States, India, Japan and Australia. A major challenge for the Quad is to fashion a strategic linkage with, and role for, six key ASEAN states, namely Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia. Our leaders will need to reflect on this challenge at the forthcoming summit.
As for economic cooperation between India and ASEAN, trade and investment flows grew well earlier, but stagnated in recent years. The agreed target of $100 billion for bilateral trade by 2015 remains unachieved till today. How then will the India-proposed target of $200 billion by 2020 be achieved? Repeated exhortations to Indian industry to become a part of regional value chains and global production networks produce yawns, not concrete results. It is hoped that the transformative nature of the Indian economy will bring more investment from ASEAN.
Two reality checks may be of crucial importance here. First, India needs ASEAN’s understanding and active support for securing a balanced outcome of negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement that gives proportionate salience to trade in services and trade in goods. Second, as a national priority, India should get its act together for speedily completing its two flagship connectivity projects–Trilateral Highway and Kaladan. Without this, its other connectivity proposals, ambitious and wide-ranging as they are, will be unable to win the support and engagement of ASEAN partners.
Substantive progress has been achieved vis-a-vis the third pillar of the relationship, namely, socio-cultural cooperation–and yet the sky is the limit. Much more can be done to facilitate exchanges at the level of students and academics, tourists, artists and sportspersons, youth and women, professional bodies, think tanks and civil society to enable our 11 nations to learn from, and enrich, each other in a sustained manner.
For regional cooperation to be more effective, it will be desirable to pay greater attention to the building blocks, i.e. the instruments available for sub-regional cooperation. With the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) blocked in the foreseeable future, the proposed rejuvenation of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) needs to be accorded a high priority. India Inc’s ideas on this subject deserve serious consideration. Besides, the full potential of the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation should also be harnessed. A proactive role by New Delhi in these institutions will further cement the India-ASEAN partnership.
In sum, India and the ASEAN states have their task cut out for them, especially for the remaining part of the decade. The forthcoming summit ought not to fail the test of tangible delivery on its inspiring theme, ‘Shared Values, Common Destiny.’
Making India-ASEAN ties “a defining partnership of our times” is a laudable goal, but we all need to work harder to attain it. Our imagination, purposefulness and speed of action must increase significantly.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme, Gateway House. He is a former ambassador to Myanmar and a regular commentator on East Asian affairs.
This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.
For interview requests with the author, or for permission to republish, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2018 Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized copying or reproduction is strictly prohibited
 Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Vision Statement-ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit, 20 December 2012, <http://mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl/20982/Vision+StatementASEANIndia+Commemorative+Summit>
 Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, Celebrating 25 years of the ASEAN-India Dialogue Partnership, 28 January 2017, <http://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/27970/Celebrating_25_years_of_the_ASEANIndia_Dialogue_Partnership>
 Malaccan Palace, President of the Republic of the Philippines and Chairman of ASEAN, Congratulatory Message, <http://www.mea.gov.in/Images/attach/Congratulatory_message.pdf>
Office of the Prime Minister, Government of India, Message from PM to President of the Republic of the Philippines, 12 January 2017, <http://www.mea.gov.in/Images/attach/Message_from_PM.pdf>
 ASEAN-India Centre, Research and Information System for Developing Countries, Keynote Address on ASEAN-India Partnership by Smt. Sushma Swaraj, 22 June 2017, <http://ris.org.in/pdf/Keynoteaddress22062017.pdf>
 Office of the Prime Minsiter, Government of India