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Monday Morning Webinar on "ASEAN-India Summit: Outcome and Prospects"

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  • November 08, 2021
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Event Report

    Dr Udai Bhanu Singh, Centre for Southeast Asia and Oceania made a presentation on “ASEAN-India Summit: Outcomes and Prospects” on 8 November, 2021. The session was moderated by Dr Arpita Anant. The panelists included Director-General Amb. Sujan Chinoy, Deputy Director-General Dr Bipin Bakshi, Col RP Singh and Mr Akash Sahu. It was attended by MP-IDSA faculty and other invitees.

    Executive Summary

    The session outlined the significance of ASEAN as a regional organization in the Indo-Pacific and its continued relevance despite emergence of newer security structures such as the QUAD or AUKUS. India and ASEAN align on the policy of rules-based order in the region and already cooperate on a number of areas including supply chains, energy, climate, disaster management and skill development. There is a need to strengthen these engagements and focus on economic and business ties between the two regions by providing a boost to infrastructure on both sides and connectivity. The shared values between India and ASEAN may be complemented with shared growth and development, which may be useful in maintaining regional balance of power.

    Dr Singh spoke on India’s relations with ASEAN and the recently concluded ASEAN-India summit. He explained India’s position of commitment to ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific. Given the uncertainty that has arisen due to ASEAN’s inability to take prompt action on the Myanmar crisis, many have been skeptical of ASEAN’s relevance as a formidable regional organization. However, India’s policy of engaging with ASEAN must not be driven by such skepticism since despite a lack of consensus on certain issues, ASEAN nations think alike on number of other fronts such as economy, trade, tourism, industry etc. India may continue to engage with ASEAN to enhance cooperation on these issues.

    The world has changed significantly from the times when ASEAN was formed in 1967, and today, the global order is being challenged by the aggressive rise of China. The Southeast Asian nations are closely interconnected with China economically and the gap in their military capacities in comparison to China is huge. Hence, the collective ASEAN identity has assumed much more importance than ever in successfully resisting China’s attempts to coerce member nations into ceding claims in the conflicted South China Sea territory. Maintaining good relations with India will also be favourable for ASEAN with a view to sustaining balance of power in the region. India and ASEAN can continue to build partnerships on the basis of their shared history, cultural linkages and political willingness from both sides.

    PM Modi’s speech at the recent summit was indicative of India’s interest in deepening engagements with ASEAN, especially in vaccine production. He also laid focus on the shared values between the two regions and cooperative efforts in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Security for All and Growth in the Region (SAGAR) and Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) are India-led initiatives aimed at improving regional maritime security. It has considerable scope for ASEAN to be involved for comprehensive joint efforts. There is also much scope for strategic alignment for India and ASEAN. The ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific, released in 2019, is the organization’s major step to realizing a common vision for Indo-Pacific with a rules-based order and freedom of navigation. India and ASEAN can work to reduce the gaps in development and cooperate in areas such as pharmaceuticals. India is part of many forums with ASEAN like East Asia Summit (EAS) and ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+), which has allowed it to better understand the region’s security issues.

    India is also engaged with ASEAN on areas of non-traditional security such as fast-changing climate and protection of the region’s rich biodiversity. The year 2022 will be ASEAN-India year of friendship. It will also be the year for Cambodia’s chairmanship of the organization. Cambodia has developed close relations with China over the years and in the year of its last chairmanship of ASEAN in 2012, had pushed Beijing’s agenda in context to South China Sea issue. India’s engagement with ASEAN, and particularly Cambodia, may be observed carefully with regard to developments on the South China Sea conflict. Summarizing the presentation, Dr Anant underlined the increasing importance of minilateralism in the Indo-Pacific and the need for India and ASEAN to maintain a robust relationship.

    The DG complimented Dr Singh for the presentation and shared his views on India-ASEAN relations. He pointed out that economics and infrastructure is where the competition lies when it comes to Southeast Asia. There has been a tendency in India to focus on civilizational linkages with the ASEAN region at the cost of developing business and trade connectivity. This may be problematic given the fast pace of Beijing’s ingress into the region with grand plans like BRI. Despite India’s cultural and religious linkages with countries in Southeast Asia, there has been less than expected convergence on issues of strategic importance due to overarching economic influence of China. India should consider strengthening ties with ASEAN by allocating much greater resources for development of infrastructure between the two regions. The DDG observed that role of ASEAN has come under speculation due to its lack of effectiveness in dealing with some contentions issues, but nevertheless it remains one of the central pillars of stability in the region. He stressed that ASEAN centrality may continue to be the rule of thumb for multilateral forums in the Indo-Pacific region. He raised a query about India’s connectivity projects in its northeastern region with Myanmar, and the progress of the Kaladan Multimodal transport route.

    Dr Singh clarified that challenges remain for India’s two flagship projects. One is the ambitious Kaladan multi-modal connectivity project which links Zorinpui in Mizoram with Myanmar’s Sittwe port in the Rakhine state, and the other is the Trilateral Highway between Moreh (in Manipur, India) and Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar. One predominant challenge is the lack of infrastructural development within India’s northeast and within the border regions of Myanmar. For the project to gain pace, it is crucial that connectivity within Northeast is strengthened speedily. Another reason is instability in the Rakhine state due to the Rohingya issue. It may be difficult to register progress as long as violence continues in areas of Rakhine critical to the Kaladan project.

    Some concerns were raised on India’s approach to ASEAN, especially as member states themselves are of varying opinions on recent security developments such as AUKUS. It was discussed that this may be primarily due to differing relationships with China. Vietnam has taken a softer approach to AUKUS while Indonesia and Malaysia have expressed concerns. It was also agreed that India may carefully observe role of large powers in the region such as Russia and the US. On RCEP, it was acknowledged that not signing the agreement in the first go was being seen internationally as a missed opportunity for India as it would be excluded from a vast free trade zone. Given some domestic restraints and pressure, India could not sign the agreement and may revisit if some of its reservations could be addressed. A beginning has to be made by revisiting the terms of the ASEAN-India FTA. India must also continue to increase cooperation with ASEAN on supply chains resilience as the COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities of the present logistics. Such cooperation may be extended to areas such as energy, given India’s vast potential for solar energy production.

    Report prepared by Akash Sahu, Research Analyst, Centre for Southeast Asia and Oceania, MP-IDSA