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Sunil Meruva asked: What are the implications of the India-ASEAN FTA in services and investment for the Indian economy? What has been the Chinese response to growing Indian presence in the ASEAN?

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  • Jagannath P. Panda replies: In order to craft a more decisive policy towards Southeast Asia, India capitalizes on maximizing trade and economic contacts with the ASEAN, which is the prime multilateral body that connects Asia’s three key regions together: South Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia. The thrust has been to capitalise on the ‘strategic partnership’ between India and the ASEAN. Though trade and economic relationship, key to the India-ASEAN partnership, has been growing, it is yet to realise its fill potential.

    Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently described the growing India-ASEAN relationship and partnership agreement as “transformational”, aimed at pushing India-ASEAN trade to almost $200 billion in the next decade; setting a realistic target of $100 billion trade by 2015. The last one-decade trade contacts between the two sides suggest that bilateral trade and economic contacts have been on ascendancy, mainly since the FTA has come into force between the two sides (See the chart below).

    (Note: Trade Figures are in approximate and compiled from open sources)

    While air and road infrastructure linkages could be one viable way to maximize the trade, the focus should also be on maritime engagements. Bilateral trade and economic engagements between India and the ASEAN has been the main hallmark of this relationship over the years. After the signing of the FTA in goods between India and the ASEAN, the bilateral trade has massively increased to 41 per cent during the year 2011-12, almost reaching $80 billion. The December 2012 India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit saw the signing of the FTA on services and investment, which would certainly help in further maximizing the trade and economic engagement in times to come. Besides, the FTA on services and investment will certainly be beneficial to the Indian economy, especially in terms of further integrating India into the Southeast Asian economies.

    For both China and India, the primary contention in their engagement with ASEAN is: who will have an edge in the ASEAN-led regional politics? Both are concerned about the geographic scope of the Asian community building. Chinese officials and scholars are worried about India’s recent revitalized approach towards the ASEAN and South-East Asia. Chinese officials do notice India’s presence and activities in the region quite seriously. If India manages to integrate itself more actively with the ASEAN and South-East Asia, ASEAN and India will be in a win–win situation when countries in the region start looking for India’s greater role, particularly in terms of economic integration at least if not in other areas, undercutting China’s influence in the region. Beijing, it may be noted, had vigorously opposed India’s association with the East Asia Summit (EAS). China has always pointedly avoided advocating a leading role for ASEAN+6 or EAS, canvassing to limit the dialogue to ASEAN+1 and ASEAN+3.