New Delhi ●
Fri 19 November 2021
The 18th India-ASEAN Summit was held virtually on October 28, attended by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei as ASEAN President and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The two sides will mark the 30-year completion of their partnership in 2022, which is designated as the Year of ASEAN-India Friendship. This milestone coincides with the 75th anniversary of India’s independence.
The details will be worked out and a plethora of activities are planned. India has Singapore, one of the most organized ASEAN countries, as a national coordinator. The president of ASEAN in 2022 will be Cambodia, whose President Hun Sen has been well known to India since he took office.
It is important that this year be celebrated with imagination. The inclusion of contemporary ideas and a refreshing ambiance should avoid the repetition of past birthday celebrations. As ASEAN and India have young populations, it is worth focusing on new areas.
The context and current focus of the India-ASEAN summit is the Indo-Pacific. Prime Minister Modi highlighted the special role of ASEAN in India’s Act East Policy and Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) as well as in the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI). Together with the ASEAN Prospects for the Indo-Pacific (AOIP), they provide the framework for vision and mutual cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.
ASEAN recognizes that India was a protagonist in the Quad’s emphasis on the centrality of ASEAN and its functional collaboration with the Quad countries, all of which are ASEAN dialogue partners. Although the Quad is not mentioned in the documents, the collaboration is in no way restricted.
Significantly, a joint declaration on cooperation on AOIP for peace, stability and prosperity in the region was adopted. It builds on the Delhi Declaration of January 2018. This reaffirms that the centrality, openness, transparency, inclusiveness of ASEAN and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) would all remain important aspects of the partnership. All ASEAN members supported it.
The declaration mentions four areas of AOIP: maritime cooperation, connectivity, sustainable development goals (SDGs) and economic cooperation. 21 paragraphs identify areas of cooperation, including sub-regional cooperation, human capital development, green infrastructure, agriculture and the use of complementarities.
The strengthening of this partnership remains the objective of the dialogue partnership between India and ASEAN. It is specified in the president’s statement. Among the various ideas that were discussed, some important ones deserve attention.
Expansion of education, collaboration between universities, green economies, achievement of the SDGs, startups and impact investing could be among the ideas to guide the expansion of the Indo-ASEAN partnership.
Nalanda University, an East Asia Summit project, would welcome collaboration with ASEAN. While some ASEAN countries have contributed, now is the time for ASEAN as a whole to be a partner.
The offer of 1000 doctoral scholarships in Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) needs to be scaled up to masters level to allow greater utilization. ASEAN countries have not used doctoral scholarships adequately. IITs are world-class institutions and can help ASEAN academics achieve higher goals.
Adequate forums and meetings are already in place. They should be results oriented and show achievement. All India-ASEAN activities are normally funded from India’s ASEAN Contribution and related funds. It would be a good opportunity for ASEAN to start contributing to emerging programs.
India-ASEAN projects require more attention. The welcome creation of a project monitoring unit within the ASEAN Secretariat shows the intention to focus on the implementation and achievement of the objectives set when these projects were undertaken.
Another area of interest is the pandemic and its post-pandemic recovery. India worked with ASEAN to support their facilities and provide material and monetary support. India’s $ 1 million contribution to ASEAN’s COVID-19 Response Fund has been appreciated, but the demands are huge. With the reopening of vaccine exports, ASEAN countries would benefit. They would also benefit greatly from the Quad vaccine initiative. It is still unclear whether ASEAN seeks a partnership or expects preferential treatment for its public health arrangements. Some ASEAN countries generously supported India during the second wave of the pandemic.
The economic dimension of the partnership requires a review of the Free Trade Agreement. The president’s statement mentions the revision of the ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) and ASEAN prefers to see “improved use and effective implementation of the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area (AIFTA ) “. This is important because India is not part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). It needs the FTA to be updated, balanced and contribute to the development of resilient supply chains between India and ASEAN.
Trade between India and ASEAN has been declining over the past three years, from $ 97 billion in 2018 to $ 79 billion in 2020. In the first half of 2021, it is only $ 42 billion. of dollars. Its true potential has yet to be realized. ASEAN has an average annual surplus of $ 20 billion. A reorganization of the FTA and better use of it could lead to an expansion of trade, notably through new supply chains.
The International Solar Alliance (ISA) is not mentioned among the 21 areas of the AOIP declaration of cooperation. The United States recently joined to become the 101st member. Only Myanmar and Cambodia are ISA members. The Coalition for Disaster Resilient Initiative (CDRI) is also not mentioned, with which no ASEAN member is associated. Most of the ideas are promoted by ASEAN. For a true partnership, mutual attention to each other’s initiatives is necessary.
India’s contribution to closing the development gap within ASEAN countries is recognized. India has extended its support to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam by establishing training centers in information technology, vocational training, English and entrepreneurship development.
India also announced its support for the ASEAN Cultural Heritage List. This is a nascent idea that builds on the ASEAN Declaration on Cultural Heritage. ASEAN will create its own list of these assets. With rapid support from India, officials will meet soon to discuss the collaboration.
India has contributed to the restoration work on the temples of Siem Reap and Yogyakarta. Given the shared histories and cultural roots of many Southeast Asian civilizations, this could have an impact.
The 18e summit focused on the spectrum of activities, covering 30 mechanisms. Emphasis was placed on the strong nature of the Indo-ASEAN partnership which was elevated to a strategic partnership in 2012.
India and ASEAN share values and ideas. Their relationship needs more substantial collaboration.
The 30e anniversary is a good time to deepen the partnership.
The writer is a former Ambassador of India to Indonesia, ASEAN, Germany, Ethiopia and the African Union.