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22 February 2016, Gateway House

The Way Forward: Towards 25th Anniversary of ASEAN-India Relations

Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia participated as a panelist at edition VIII of the Delhi Dialogue hosted by IDSA.

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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Remarks by Ambassador Rajiv Bhatia, Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House at Delhi Dialogue VIII: IDSA.

Mr. Chairman, Fellow Panelists and Friends,

Greetings from Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, the Mumbai-based, dynamic think tank devoted to the study of geopolitical and geo-economic issues impacting India’s national interests.

I thank IDSA and its partners for this opportunity to present my perspective on the final session’s theme. Of necessity, it should be futuristic, while being anchored in the reality of the past and present.

As we all know, India’s links with Southeast Asia began and flourished long before 2002 or even 1967. Yet, there is little doubt that the launch of sectoral dialogue partnership in 1992 was a significant milestone and, therefore, its 25th anniversary should be celebrated with enthusiasm. It is also apt to underline that, with the formation of ASEAN Community and the upgradation of our LEP to AEP, ASEAN-India relations have entered into the phase of ‘a new paradigm’, the central theme of this conference.

Where do we stand now in our shared journey? Several points are pertinent here.

First, unfortunately our trade seems to stagnate. Between 2011-12 and 2014-15, its value has fluctuated between $74 billion and $79 billion. We have been unable to attain our target of $100 billion by 2015. Our two-way flow of investment too needs speedier expansion.

All this calls for deep introspection. We have done this in ample measure in the past three days. Business leaders now need to deliver on the optimal use of existing FTAs, co-manufacturing and other measures. Governments need to complete quickly the review of ASEAN-India FTA in Goods as well as conclude RCEP negotiations by December 2016. This will be a critical benchmark.

Second, as dispassionate scholars, we need to undertake a simple exercise on the vital question of connectivity, namely to distinguish between ambitious proposals and plans on the one hand, and actual progress of projects on the ground, on the other. Without forgetting the past burden of under-performance, let us prepare a realistic inventory of what must be completed and made fully operational in the next five years ending in December 2020. And then let us deploy our combined resources to achieve this goal.

Third, CLMV countries will remain a prime object of India’s focus in the coming years. With Laos as the ASEAN Chair, Vietnam as a member of TPP and Myanmar standing on the verge of a major transformation, India will do well to enhance the quotient of resilience and dynamism in its policy approach. We should not be content with what we have been doing; we have to attempt to scale new heights.

Fourth, the future health of ASEAN-India relations will be moulded partially by the strength and diversity of new bonds that we are able to create between our northeast and our eastern neighbours – Myanmar, Thailand and also Bangladesh. In this creative exercise, voices of the ‘Third Space’ i.e. institutions and scholars, especially young scholars, from our northeastern states should be heard, with greater attention and respect. I would strongly suggest holding a major pre-Delhi Dialogue IX activity in a state capital in the Northeast. The Asian Confluence and ICWA succeeded in doing this splendidly at Shillong in 2014 and 2015.

Finally, as a former diplomat, I cannot help expressing concern over some aspects of the strategic dimension of our relations and the evolving regional scene. Our pledges and planning for shared prosperity are dependent on the maintenance of peace, security and stability in the region. There is a pressing need to safeguard and promote the culture of peaceful dialogue and negotiation for resolving inter-state differences and disputes. The arsenal of destroyers, fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles should have no place in this development-oriented narrative. Or else our peoples will suffer! We must unite to avoid this grim possibility.

In conclusion, it is evident that the Delhi Dialogue has come of age as an institution. It plays a valuable role. It has proved the skeptics wrong. Its 10th anniversary is just two years away. We may reflect on how we should celebrate it suitably as a means to impart further momentum to ASEAN-India relations.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House. 

This speech was given as remarks as part of the Delhi Dialogue VIII: IDSA

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