India and the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) are currently celebrating 25 years of their rapidly expanding partnership. They are also marking 15 years of their Summit engagement and five years of Strategic their Partnership. In addition, ASEAN completed 50 years of its establishment in 2017.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the partnership, all 10 Heads of States/Governments of ASEAN States will participate as Chief Guests in the Republic Day celebrations on 26 January 2018. This is for the first time that more than one Head of State/Government has been invited as Chief Guest on India's National Day. It is also a measure of India's growing international profile and prestige that leaders of all 10 ASEAN countries have readily acquiesced to participate in this event. The presence of the entire ASEAN leadership on this occasion is a natural extrapolation of the Act East Policy (AEP) launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the first East Asia Summit (EAS) attended by him in Myanmar in November 2014.

Act East Policy
AEP is the successor to the Look East Policy (LEP) that was put in place by then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1992 under radically different geo-political and economic circumstances. LEP was primarily focused on strengthening economic ties between India and ASEAN states. The end of the Cold War and disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 provided a welcome opportunity for India to reach out to South-East Asia to capitalise upon its historical, cultural and civilisational linkages with the region.

The Look East Policy registered impressive gains for 20 years after its inception. Having become a sectoral partner of ASEAN in 1992, India became a dialogue partner and member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1996. India’s two-way trade with ASEAN now stands at approximately $76 billion. India and ASEAN missed out on achieving the two-way trade target of $100 billion set during the Commemorative Summit held on the 20th Anniversary of the bilateral partnership in 2012 in New Delhi.

The India-ASEAN Free Trade pact in services and investments, which was concluded in 2014 and came into effect a year later, has the potential to reduce India's trade deficit with the region as also impart a strong impulse to bilateral exchanges. India is also a part of the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which, when concluded and implemented, will cover almost 40 per cent of the world’s population, 33 per cent of global GDP and 40 per cent of world trade. India and ASEAN are natural partners in their desire to create a free, open and inclusive regional architecture. They are active participants in the East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF). Currently, there exist 30 different dialogue mechanisms between India and the ASEAN states focusing on a range of sectors.

Connectivity between India and ASEAN, particularly Myanmar and Thailand, has emerged as a significant element in cementing bonds between the two regions. Better infrastructure connecting Northeast India and ASEAN has become the sine qua non for stronger economic and trade partnership and vital contributor to prosperity and economic development of the region. Two major connectivity projects, viz., the Trilateral Highway between north-east India and Myanmar and onwards to Thailand (and Laos and Vietnam) as well as the Kaladan multi-modal transit and transport project, have been under implementation for several years.

The NDA government has taken it up seriously. It is highly likely that both will soon become operational. The allocation of $1 billion by Prime Minister Modi during his visit to Malaysia in September 2015 to support connectivity projects is testimony to the importance that the government attaches to rapidly developing infrastructure and bring the regions closer.

Relations with ASEAN have become multi-faceted to encompass security. Defence partnerships with several ASEAN states are advancing rapidly. ASEAN continues to form the central pillar of India’s Act East Policy. This is evident from the very active exchange of visits that has taken place between India and the region.

Chinese Conundrum
In a rapidly evolving geo-political scenario marked by China’s assertive military, political and economic rise, the AEP has imparted greater dynamism to India’s ties with ASEAN. The issue of ownership, control, use and exploitation of oil, gas, mineral and fisheries resources in the South China Sea has emerged as a major dispute between China and several ASEAN countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. India is concerned because more than 40 per cent of its trade passes through the South China Sea.

It is also interested in harnessing fossil fuel resources in the region for meeting its energy needs. In all recent discussions in regional and international fora, India and several other countries have supported freedom of navigation, ensuring maritime security, expeditious resolution of disputes according to provisions of international law, viz., the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas 1982, developing a Code of Conduct, and settlement of disputes through dialogue and peaceful means.

India – US partnership
Relations between India and USA have progressed and grown in recent years. A strong impetus was provided by President Obama's visit to India as the Chief Guest at its Republic Day function in 2015 and the issuance of a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region. This partnership was given a further fillip during the visit of US President Trump to East and Southeast Asia in November 2017. Trump’s consistent use of the expression ''Indo-Pacific'' throughout his visit, instead of the more commonly used ''Asia Pacific'' to signify that India is a significant player in the region. A meeting of the Quad (USA, Japan, Australia and India) at the level of officials also gave a strong indication of the interest of these countries in working together to ensure a free, open, inclusive and prosperous region.

India and ASEAN account for about 30 per cent of the global population (i.e., 1.85 billion people) and a combined GDP of approximately $5.1 trillion. Together, they would form the third largest economy in the world. Given their combined clout, it is but natural for them to expand their areas of collaboration particularly in view of the rapidly changing and uncertain global and regional scenario. The promotion of India’s geostrategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region depend on India’s bilateral and multilateral/regional engagements with the countries in the region. It is hence essential to strengthen collaboration with ASEAN as an organisation as well as with individual Southeast Asian countries.

Despite progress made over the last 25 years in India-ASEAN ties, there remains immense scope for further growth in the relationship. This is one of the most dynamic regions of the world today, and it is necessary for both India and ASEAN to actively collaborate to shape the so-called ‘Asian century’.

By: Ashok Sajjanhar
(Courtesy: idsa.in; Excerpts from an article. Sajjanhar is President, Institute of Global Studies, and a former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia)