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PM’s visit to Malaysia and Vietnam

Panjaj Kumar Jha was Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • November 08, 2010

    As India deepens its strategic engagement with the countries of South East Asia, ASEAN needs to make up its mind on the mechanisms required to tackle core security issues instead of outsourcing them to a multitude of organisations.

    Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Malaysia (October 26-28) and thereafter to Vietnam (October 28-30) for the India-ASEAN and the East Asia Summits laid out a future action plan for engaging India’s near East. The Indian Prime Minister’s visit was in follow-up to the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s visit to India in January this year. With the signing of 13 MoUs during Najib’s visit relating to science and technology, energy, education etc, Malaysia had made its desire to further deepen ties with India clear.

    Manmohan Singh’s return visit witnessed the conclusion of negotiations on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with Malaysia. The CECA with Malaysia would come into effect in July 2011. During the visit MoUs in the field of IT, culture, research and development exchanges were signed. He also referred to an investment and services agreement with ASEAN to accelerate the pace of India’s economic and strategic integration with Southeast Asia.

    ASEAN nations still have their reservations about free trade in services with India. A Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) of degrees and conforming to each other’s quality standards also needs to be sorted out. Also, an ASEAN-India FTA came into force in January 2010 but only four nations (Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand) ratified and implemented the agreement. Under this agreement by 2016, it is expected that tariffs would be reduced drastically on 4000 items paving the way for integration of a 1.8 billion population and a combined market of more than US $ 2.8 trillion.

    During the 8th ASEAN-India Summit a clear blueprint was presented to ASEAN about India’s increased interest in the region. This translated into cooperation in science and technology through a previously established India-ASEAN fund of $ 50 million and India-ASEAN Green Fund. Prime Minister offered 100 IT scholarships to ASEAN. This would be a boon for the students and executives from ASEAN nations to learn from one of the foremost service sectors in India. The icing on the cake was the visa on arrival facility to the citizens of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Philippines.

    India’s Look East policy has reached its objectives but there is need for a better action plan for Indochinese states. BIMSTEC should be made economically proactive, Mekong Ganga Cooperation should be reinvigorated and connectivity with Indochina should be taken up on a priority basis.

    India has offered education and human resource development to the lesser developed nations of Indochina but India still needs a clear Indochina policy which should include investment, trade and strategic issues. Once India’s foremost strategic thinker K. Subramanyam had stated that China’s strategic inroads in Indochina would impinge on India’s strategic interests and so India should proactively engage its extended neighbourhood.

    Along the sidelines of the 5th East Asia Summit, Prime Minister met a number of leaders ranging from his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao, Hillary Clinton, Julia Gillard, the South Korean President and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.

    The meeting with Wen was more of an appraisal of recent developments like visa denial to the Indian general but also willingness to discuss the territorial issue. The meeting with Hillary Clinton was in preparation of the forthcoming visit of President Obama to India while meetings with the Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers were more to do with trade and climate change issues. The meeting with the South Korean President reaffirmed the strategic and economic importance of South Korea.

    From the policy point of view, India is setting the stage for launching a major economic and investment drive in the region. Nevertheless, on the security and strategic front it has been toeing ASEAN’s line. This honeymoon period might not last for long and India would have to set its priorities clear. The South China Sea and Myanmar are cases in point. ASEAN has already been coaxed by the US to take a proactive line on Myanmar. India has been taking a realistic stance but with US pressure, it seems probable that ASEAN leaders would relent on some of the requests from their US and European counterparts. On the South China Sea issue there are clear divisions with Vietnam willing to organise regional thinking on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea issue while China is for bilateral negotiations. The US has been viewing this as an opportunity to enter the strategic sphere of Southeast Asia. It has offered to draft the code of conduct. India has been keeping a low profile though the Minister of State for External Affairs, Ms. Preneet Kaur made some remarks at the ARF Summit in Hanoi in July 2010 about peace and stability in the South China Seas.

    ASEAN also has been discussing issues like non-traditional security threats and climate change so as to bring consensus on these important issues but it has been evading core security issues. These issues are now dealt with in other organisations. Regional security organisations like ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) have been instrumental in initiating dialogue and confidence building. Informal dialogue mechanism like Shangri-La dialogue also exist in the region but in terms of conflict resolution there are shortcomings.

    This has led to evolution of nascent organisations like the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Plus mechanism which includes six dialogue partners, Russia and US also.

    But most of the regional security organisations have been dwelling excessively on non-traditional security issues in order to build consensus, and have desisted from raising core security issues.

    The question which needs to be asked is whether too much of a consensus oriented attitude would allow the regional security organisations to address core traditional security issues or would they have to create separate mechanisms like the Six Party Talks. The region is undergoing a transitional phase and how the existing multilateral institutional frameworks would fare in the long run, only time will tell.