The year 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the dialogue partnership between India and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The anniversary coincides with the 50 years of existence of ASEAN as a successful regional grouping. The year 2017 also completes 15 years of India-ASEAN dialogue at the summit level, i.e. between the heads of government of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam on one hand and the India on the other. In tandem, this year also commemorates the completion of five years of strategic partnership between Asia’s third-largest economy and one of the most successful economic groupings in the world.
The bilateral relationship between India and Southeast Asia can be traced back thousands of years. Historically, the coastal kingdoms of Orissa and Southern India had trade connections with Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia. The Indian influence of Buddhism and Hinduism has spread to almost all countries in the region. Notably, the majority of the people in Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand are Buddhists. The strong Indian influence in Southeast Asia can also be found in Cambodia. Angkor Wat temple was built with the influence of Hinduism by the Khmer King Jayavarman II (about 800s-850s).
India’s relations with Southeast Asia have been forged over time. The first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, often accentuated the necessity of closer ties with Southeast Asia, and did so as far back as 1944 when he invited leaders from Vietnam, Indonesia, and Burma to the first Asian Conference in New Delhi in March 1947. Among Southeast Asian leaders, Nehru had close relations with Indonesia’s President Sukarno, and they were pioneers of the Non-Aligned Movement that emerged from the 1955 Bandung Conference of Asian and African states.
With the growing significance of the Southeast Asia region in terms of both economic and strategic dimensions, India has given its foreign policy priority to the region. This can be seen in the initiation of the Look East Policy, which was later shifted to the Act East Policy under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The core concept of the Act East Policy is to cultivate strategic and economic relations with the countries of Southeast Asia in order to strengthen India’s posture as a regional power and furthermore to counterbalance the increasing influence of China. India has actively engaged in several ASEAN-led forums like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit, ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus, and the ASEAN-India Summit. Such engagements reflect India’s deepening ties with ASEAN.
In addition, India is an indispensable player which is able to contribute to improving regional physical infrastructure and serve as a bridge from South to Southeast Asia. So far, several sub-regional initiatives have been put in place to link the two regions, such as the South Asia Sub-Regional Economic Corporation (SASEC), the Bay of Bangal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Corporation (BIMSTEC), ASEAN+1, and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Initiative, all of which include India as the common factor. With these initiatives and India’s central geographical position, countries in South Asia such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the two landlocked countries Nepal and Bhutan, can all access the Southeast Asian economy.
India can be a bridge between South and Southeast Asia both on land and over the sea. The fact that Myanmar shares a land border of 1,700 km with four Indian states — Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh — has led to several major infrastructure projects like the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway which connect India’s northeast with the ASEAN region. Other projects such as the Trans-Asian railway project and the Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project are aimed at connecting Kolkata with Sittwe port in Myanmar, and stretching further to Lashio through Kaladan River and to Mizoram in India by road, offer potential opportunities to upgrade India’s ties with ASEAN countries.
While the potential for road connectivity between South and Southeast Asia is enormous, it is still in the realm of possibility, requiring the road network to be linked with maritime routes to ensure seamless movement of cargo, trade, and transportation. Notably, nearly 95 percent of India’s merchandise trade by volume is moved by sea. India’s maritime connectivity with Southeast and East Asia, although presently limited, can be the facilitator of pan-Asian integration. To achieve the goal of maritime connectivity, India during its annual meeting with the ASEAN Connectivity Coordinating Committee (ACCC) in 2013 suggested establishing a Joint Working Group (JWG) on Maritime Connectivity between India, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, with its primary duty being the examination of the soft infrastructure needed for the seamless movement of goods and passenger traffic along the ASEAN-India connectivity corridors. Furthermore, India has conducted a study of the Mekong-India Economic Corridor to scrutinize the production networks in the Mekong region along the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) Southern Economic Corridor (Ho Chi Minh-Phnom Penh-Bangkok) to the corridors in India (Delhi-Mumbai-Industrial Corridor and Mumbai-Bangalore-Chennai industrial corridor) via the Chennai-Dawei sea link.
All these projects will contribute to accelerating regional economic integration. Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley stressed the importance of regional connectivity at SASEC earlier this year: “Improved connectivity and infrastructure development could substantially spur economic growth in the region. Enhanced cooperation among the member countries would also give an impetus to small and medium enterprises in the region. Collaboration in knowledge sharing would facilitate innovation and research.”
India’s Act East Policy should go along with aid provision for funding non-governmental organizations, especially in the area of promoting rule of law, human rights, and democracy.
Along with physical connectivity, more Indian multinational corporations should take advantage of the steady growth of Southeast Asia, which is collectively estimated to be about 4.7 percent in 2017 and 4.8 percent in 2018. This growth presents new opportunities for foreign and Indian companies to invest in the region and enjoy latecomer advantage. The success case of Japan-based retailer AEON which has a large presence in Malaysia and Cambodia can be the inspiration for Indian companies. In this regard, government policies to encourage Indian multinational corporations to go abroad, especially to Southeast Asia, have to be put in place to facilitate the smooth process of overseas investment. The Indian government should also have a large amount of foreign currency reserves to help these multinational corporations when they are in financial need for their expansion. In addition, public diplomacy can contribute to the process as well.
The Act East Policy, which can be partly seen as India’s security commitment to the region and coincides with the uncertainty of the US in general and particularly in the South China Sea, has led some Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam to forge security ties with India and to ask India to play a larger role in the South China Sea amid growing Chinese assertiveness. As Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said at Delhi Dialogue IX: “ASEAN supports India to play a greater role in the political and security domain, and create a rule-based region. We hope India will continue to partner our efforts for strategic security and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea on the basis of international law and legal convention.” His statement is in sync with India’s Act East Policy since India has diplomatic, strategic, and economic reasons to become more active in the South China Sea. For example, Vietnam recently granted a two-year extension to Indian oil firm ONGC Videsh to continue its exploration activities at block 128 off the southern coast of Vietnam in waters contested by China. Moreover, it seems to be in reciprocity that Vietnam has supported India’s bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a position New Delhi has long sought.
India’s Act East Policy should go along with aid provision for funding non-governmental organizations, especially in the area of promoting rule of law, human rights, and democracy. Since India is the largest democracy in the world and the US is showing less commitment to the region through its proposed cuts in foreign assistance, India should fill this vacuum. If so, a potential clash with China is likely since China is still the dominant aid provider in the region. Chinese aid however is focused at the governmental level. Leaders in Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Laos are very sensitive to issues like democracy or human rights. For example, communist Vietnam is not happy with US funding of local NGOs which demand democracy. The same thing happened in Thailand when the US criticized issues of human rights and democracy, resulting in the Thai government’s tilt towards China. Cambodia had a similarly strong response when it cancelled several joint projects with the US after the US assailed Cambodia about democracy and human rights. India hence should be prudent when providing foreign aid to countries in Southeast Asia, as its generous intentions could lead to a backlash.
The reputation of Indian universities, in particular in the STEM fields, is globally renowned. The high quality of Indian higher education can be seen in the massive number of Indian scientists who have gone to work for giant tech companies around the world. India could help countries in Southeast Asia set up universities with a primary focus on STEM fields. This proposal is not novel because Japan has done this already, by working with Malaysia to set up the Malaysia-Japan International Institute of Technology. India could consider working with less developed countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam to establish similar tertiary institutions. These countries are in need of technological acumen to push their industrialization agendas so that they will be able to catch up economically with the other ASEAN members. For India, this can pave the way for future investments of Indian technology companies. Such initiatives will also be good opportunities for India to project its soft power across the region.
All in all, how far India can go with the region remains to be seen. As Hash V. Pant, professor of international relations at King’s College London noted:
“There is a lot of demand for Indian presence which most regional states view as a benign force. But India is yet to give a signal that it remains committed to a long-term strategic presence in the region. Economically, India needs to develop connectivities with the region so that economic complementaries can be fully realised. Militarily, India needs to evolve into a robust security provider in the region. Diplomatically, it needs a sustained outreach. Culturally, it needs to build on the shared cultural linkages. And most importantly, New Delhi needs to build intellectual capital in the region so that India is studied and understood much more than is the case today.”
As India is on the steady rise both economically and militarily, it is expected that more active engagement will be on the way. Southeast Asian countries should be ready for this and ensure that peaceful coexistence between and among great and regional powers such as India, China, Japan, and the US is well sustained, and that the real prosperity for every single country in the region can be bolstered and sustained.