The ASEAN-India relations that focus on the strategic partnership seem to be responding to the power shifts in the international system, as India tries to position itself as an important player in Southeast Asia. Interestingly, the words of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the Discovery of India (1944) seem truer than never before. To him, “The Pacific is likely to take the place of the Atlantic in the future as the nerve centre of the world. Though not directly a Pacific state, India will inevitably exercise an important influence there. India will also develop as the Centre of economic and strategic importance in a part of the world which is going to develop in the future.” It is in these foundations, that India’s foreign policy despite changes in government reflects continuity in its engagement with the world, particularly the eastern neighbours.
Before going further, it is to be noted that India has close bi-lateral relations with each of the ASEAN member countries and unlike other close neighbours, India and ASEAN has ‘no irritants’ in their relationship. Over the years, the ASEAN-India relations has grown from Sectoral Dialogue partnership in 1992 to a full dialogue partnership in 1995 and subsequently to a summit level interaction, with the first ASEAN-India Summit being held in 2002 in Phnom Penh. Since then it has been held annually. It is important to point out from beginning, that the signing of “Long Term Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity” with ASEAN at the third ASEAN-India summit in the Laotian capital, Vientiane 30th November 2004, is considered as the corner stone of India’s Look East Policy. Apart from that, an intensifying India’s engagement with ASEAN is observed under the leadership of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when in December 2012, New Delhi hosted the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit to mark the twenty years of its association, thus upgrading the India-ASEAN relationship to a Strategic Partnership. At the 12th ASEAN-India meeting at Nay Pyi Taw, the External Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj, remarked that “The ASEAN-India strategic partnership owes its strength to the fact that our ‘Look East’ to ASEAN meets your ‘Look West’ towards India.” Similarly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his remarks at the same summit ‘reinforced his confidence in the India-ASEAN Strategic Partnership.’
As observed, the present international politics reflect a deeper interdependence of strategic partners between states. Writing in the Hindu newspaper, Nirupama Subramanian define ‘Strategic Partnership’ as those that, “are commonly associated with defense or security related issues, but a survey of formal strategic partnerships around the world reveal they can also be quite a hold-all, covering a wide range in bi-lateral relations, from defense to education, economic relations including trade, investment and banking.” The former Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh in 2012, when the ASEAN-India relations was upgraded to Strategic Partnership, points out that connectivity is the strategic priority in India-ASEAN relationships also adding the importance of digital links. Likewise, the strategic partnership as mentioned by the ASEAN leader, General Minh, focuses on improvement of people to people contact, expansion of transport and linkages, trade investments, development of communication technology, social and cultural exchanges and sharing of knowledge and culture and education. But priority change is stated by the present Prime Minister Modi in the 12th ASEAN-India summit, 2014, as he advocates more for the Information Highways or so called as the ‘I-Highways’ than physical connectivity. As quoted, “However, in this age, more than physical connectivity, we need Information Highways or i-ways. My experience is that even where road connectivity is poor, we can create vast economic opportunities and employment through i-ways.”
However, it is crucial to point out that North-East India which is viewed as “the gateway to Southeast Asia,” physical connectivity is as important as the I-Highways. It is through physical connectivity that people-to people-contact, trade promotion, and other activities can take place. Proper physical connectivity through roads, railways, highways, etc., can help in promoting the ‘Made in India’ initiative, as improved connectivity will reduce costs and promotes supply. The projects like India–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway (IMTTH), The Delhi–Hanoi Railway Link (DHRL),The Kaladan-Multimodal Transit Transport Project (KMTTP) in Myanmar which envisages connectivity between Indian ports and Sittwe port, and road and inland waterway links from Sittwe to India’s NER, the Mekong–India Economic Corridor (MIEC) which involves integrating the four Mekong countries, namely, Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) with Dawei (Myanmar) via Bangkok (Thailand) and Phnom Penh (Cambodia) and further linking to Chennai in India are crucial physical connectivity for leveraging ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership.
The other point worth highlighting is, as the Chinese are way ahead in the construction of road and railways and expanding towards South East Asia, it is therefore imperative that there should be a tangible improvement in the physical connectivity in the North East Region. Such improvement includes better connectivity within the region itself; and between the region and the rest of India. It is only when locating North East at the centre to India’s ‘Look East’ and ‘Act East’ policy that ASEAN-India strategic relations can be realized to its logical end.
With the new government starting its work on the present ASEAN-India relations, the full assessment on the ASEAN-India strategic partnership on the impact on global politics is too early to be commented upon. However, since the policy language has more or less been same, the present government needs to prove its mettle by cementing the work at the ground-level with the talks. What is observed is that the need of the hour is that a growing and increasingly confident India, should focus on the connectivity both physically from the North East region of India, maritime connectivity in the South and also I-Highways should be upgraded. It needs to move from rhetoric strategic partnership to a pragmatic strategic partnership.
Thus, for the success of ASEAN-India strategic partnership, a lot will depend on the ability to follow up at the ground level on the policies endorsed in various summits, dialogues, and other high-level meetings and engagements. As former Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh points out, the success of any India’s foreign policy, depend not only on the Ministry of External Affairs alone, but other ministries as well which need to do the follow-up, be it the Ministry of Road Transport or Highways or Shipping. Thus, the Central Government in coordination with the concerned Ministry and state governments needs to coordinate in tandem to get better dividends through this ASEAN-India strategic partnership.
Centre for Political Studies
Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi