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Published on Jan 30, 2018
ASEAN leaders visit: A big boost to India's act east policy

The presence of all ten Heads of State/Government of Member countries of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in India for the Commemorative Summit on 25 January to mark 25 years of dialogue partnership, 15 years of Summit partnership and 5 years of Strategic Partnership, and to be Guests of Honour at India’s Republic Day on 26 January has provided a huge boost to India’s prestige and profile in the region and beyond. The fact that all 10 leaders accepted the invitation is testimony to the expanding clout of India in global affairs and the growing belief amongst Southeast Asian countries that India can play a significant, beneficial role in the region. The detailed, comprehensive and ambitious 36-para Delhi Declaration issued at the end of the Commemorative Summit is confirmation of the huge potential that exists in enhancing bilateral cooperation between India and ASEAN nations. Coming on the heels of India’s deepening ties with the US, Japan, Europe and other major powers, the visit of leaders of ASEAN nations has underlined the salience and relevance of India’s Act East Policy enunciated by PM Modi in Myanmar in November, 2014.

This initiative to invite the 10 ASEAN leaders as Guests of Honour to India’s Republic Day celebrations by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is as much evidence of ‘’out of the box’’ thinking as was the one he had taken to invite all leaders of SAARC nations plus Mauritius to his swearing in ceremony on 26 May, 2014. The SAARC initiative has unfortunately not been able to register much progress on account of Pakistan’s intransigence. One can, however, be quite confident that the ASEAN move will contribute to significantly upgrading and intensifying bilateral partnership across a wide spectrum of areas in the coming years.

Republic Day Parade

Leaders of five out of ten ASEAN nations were invited as Chief Guests to India’s Republic Day in previous years. In fact, President Sukarno of Indonesia was the first world leader to be invited as the Chief Guest in 1950. Five countries from the ASEAN were hence accorded this honour for the first time when all 10 ASEAN leaders congregated to witness the R-Day parade on 26 January and get acquainted with the military might and dazzling cultural and ethnic diversity of India. It was an unprecedented and momentous occasion as never before have such a large number of world leaders assembled as Guests of Honour for India's National Day. This occasion has hence scripted history in more ways than one.

The event was, however, not only pomp and show, whistles and spectacle. The images of colourful cultural tableaux from different Indian States and organizations as well as display of the state of the art military hardware will of course remain vivid in the memories of the visiting ASEAN leaders. A smart move by India was to select one individual each from the 10 ASEAN nations for award of Padma Shri for their work in strengthening relations between India and those countries. This will significantly promote people-to-people ties and encourage others to follow the path these eminent individuals have traversed to strengthen relations between India and ASEAN. The display of all 10 flags of ASEAN countries in the march-past would also have sent out a message of friendship and cooperation to all the visiting leaders. Inclusion of the ASEAN flag along with flags of India and of the 3 services in the fly-past would have gratified the people in ASEAN nations sending out a clear message that India is keen to enhance its engagement with these countries.

The Delhi Declaration

Even more significant than the pomp and show of the Parade were the substantive discussions between leaders during the Commemorative Summit and Retreat on 25 January at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Several significant elements are covered in the Delhi Declaration that was issued after the Summit. The Declaration is noteworthy not only for its extensive coverage but also for focusing on the huge potential that exists in taking the relationship to a higher level.

One of the most notable aspects is that the Declaration does not shy away from squarely focusing on the issue of conflict in the South China Sea (SCS). This has emerged as a divisive issue within ASEAN over the last many years as China has been able to divide the organisation down the middle by providing lucrative offers to some countries like Cambodia and Laos who have not hesitated to articulate the Chinese position when discussions on this vital subject are held. This was the reason that the ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting in Phnom Penh in 2012 was for the first time not able to adopt a Declaration because of the widely differing positions on this issue. The Delhi Declaration on this subject reads as flows:

“6. Reaffirm the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, stability, maritime safety and security, freedom of navigation and overflight in the region, and other lawful uses of the seas and unimpeded lawful maritime commerce and to promote peaceful resolutions of disputes, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the relevant standards and recommended practices by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). In this regard, we support the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and look forward to an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).”

All issues of concern to the ASEAN countries and India including respect for international law, primacy of UNCLOS 1982, freedom of navigation and overflights in the region, peaceful resolution of disputes etc have been mentioned upfront in the Declaration. This is evidence of the strong interest and desire that ASEAN has in India’s greater engagement with the region. Reference has also been made to “an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.” China has been keen to deal on SCS with ASEAN countries on a bilateral basis. It has also not recognized the role of countries like the US, India etc who are not part of the region. It is a well recognised fact that the speed with which China has been able to reclaim, occupy, build and militarise many of the shoals and islands in SCS has left the ASEAN stunned, numb, befuddled and helpless. They are keen to enhance understanding with their strategic partners so that they can evolve a balanced and reasonable COC in SCS. It is noteworthy that the language used in the Delhi Declaration is quite similar to the language adopted in the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region issued during the visit of US President Barack Obama to India as Chief Guest for India’s Republic Day in January, 2015. ASEAN is aware that India by itself cannot be a balancer to China, not only on account of the wide disparity between India and China in economic and military terms but also because of the proximate location of China in the region. Economic engagement of ASEAN with China is of a much higher order ie annual bilateral trade of US$ 470 billion with China as compared to US$ 70 billion with India, which they would not like to put in jeopardy. ASEAN nations would hope that USA can again be got more actively interested and engaged in ASEAN affairs so that they would be on a stronger footing when dealing with China on these critical issues.

Emphasis on expanding trade between India and ASEAN is another significant element covered in the Declaration. Bilateral trade between the two regions has shown satisfactory growth of 25 times over twenty five years since the dialogue partnership was launched in 1992. This is, however, much below potential. It would be to the economic and strategic advantage of both India and ASEAN if these ties are upgraded quickly. India-ASEAN FTA in goods has not been beneficial to India. It has expanded the trade deficit between the two. A few ASEAN countries are still to ratify the FTA on Investment and Services between India and ASEAN. Negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which commenced in 2012 have been stalled for the last 2-3 years although 20 negotiating meetings have been held. Formulation on RCEP reads as follows:

Intensify efforts in 2018 toward the swift conclusion of a modern, comprehensive, high quality, and mutually beneficial Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP.”

India is being blamed for dragging its feet on moving forward on this issue. India’s concerns are two-fold. One that entering into this Agreement will throw it open to uncontrolled imports of low quality, low priced Chinese goods which would be detrimental to its own industry. Second, it has not been able to receive any meaningful offers from other participants in the area of trade in services in which it enjoys a comparative advantage. India is keen on a balanced, fair and equitable outcome. India, however, needs to rethink its negotiating strategy so that these negotiations are concluded without further loss of time. The issue has assumed even greater urgency because it is becoming clear that TPP-11 (Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement without the US) might get adopted and implemented in the coming months. India is not a member of TPP. Its exports would be adversely affected if RCEP countries decide to move on without India because of the delays in concluding the negotiations.

The Declaration emphasises the “centrality” of ASEAN in all evolving Institutions and deliberations. This is considered vital by the ASEAN nations. India does not let go of any opportunity to reiterate this position. In fact this is important for both India and ASEAN as neither of them would like the evolving architecture to be dominated by a powerful country like China or the US.

Connectivity finds an important mention in the document. The Declaration exhorts the early completion of the Trilateral Highway from Northeast India via Myanmar to Thailand. India should ensure that this is completed and operationalised by next year as PM Modi has announced. The Kaladan project has not been mentioned. This notwithstanding, India should spare no effort in completing it expeditiously. This project passes through Rakhine province in Myanmar from where the Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh and elsewhere. Kaladan is expected to have positive socio-economic benefits for people living in the region.

The Declaration has dealt in detail with several other issues of interest and concern to both India and ASEAN including counter-terrorism, radicalisation, cyber-security, maritime and air transport, ICT, MSMEs, food and energy security, S&T, space, promotion of historical and civilisational links, women empowerment, health, tourism, youth, education, culture, climate change and environment, hu8manitarian assistance, capacity development, biodiversity management, and many more.

Issues relating to defence cooperation have not been mentioned in the Declaration. It can be safely presumed that these would have received full consideration during the bilateral meetings that Prime Minister Modi had with all the visiting leaders. Defence can emerge as an important area of collaboration between India and several ASEAN countries including Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Thailand etc. Involvement of individual ASEAN countries in the informal, official level consultations amongst the ‘’Quad’’ nations (USA, India, Japan, Australia) which were initiated in Manila on the sidelines of EAS in November, 2017 could also have come up for discussions between India and some ASEAN leaders.


The significance of the visit of the 10 ASEAN leaders to India at this juncture increases manifold as several uncertainties and challenges plague the Indo-Pacific region. A strong partnership between ASEAN and India can be hugely beneficial for security, stability, peace and prosperity in these countries, the region and the world.

Promotion of India’s geostrategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region depends on India’s bilateral and multilateral/regional engagements with the countries in the region. It is essential to strengthen collaboration with ASEAN as an organisation as well as with individual Southeast Asian countries.

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Ashok Sajjanhar

Ashok Sajjanhar

Amb. Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He was the ambassador of India to Kazakhstan Sweden and Latvia ...

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