Southeast Asia has been called the “Golden Island,” “Golden Peninsula,” “Yavadipa,” or “Suvarnadipa” since the first century AD in Indian writing. There are many parts to India’s relationship with Southeast Asia. In the past, there was a lot of trade between the coastal kingdoms of Orissa and Southern India and Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia. Also, Buddhism and Hinduism, which are both Indian religions, still have a big impact on Southeast Asia. Epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are a big part of Southeast Asian culture.
Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, talked about how important it was to have better ties with Southeast Asia as early as 1944. In his book “The Discovery of India,” Nehru wrote about the region’s economic and strategic importance and how India would have to play a bigger part in the future. He also asked the leaders of Vietnam, Indonesia, and Burma to attend the first Asian Conference in March 1947, which was held in New Delhi. Leaders from other Asian countries agreed with Nehru’s Pan-Asian agenda, especially his focus on decolonization and economic cooperation.
Nehru was good friends with the leaders of Southeast Asia, especially President Sukarno of Indonesia.
Both were leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement, which grew out of the 1955 Bandung Conference of Asian and African states looking for a way to be independent of both the Soviet Bloc and the West.
Besides the Non-Alignment Movement, communism also had an effect on India’s relationships with the other countries in the area. During the Vietnam War, India helped North Vietnam because, at the time, India was very against the United States. India’s connection to the Soviet Union during the cold war affected its relationships with Southeast Asian countries. However, India also had good relationships with Malaysia and was one of the first countries to recognise Singapore as a diplomatic partner in 1965.
At the beginning of the 1990s, India’s relationships with the rest of the world, including Southeast Asia, changed in two big ways. First, when the Soviet Union broke up, the Cold War system came to an end. This caused a big change in India’s foreign policy towards the US, where ideology gave way to a more practical approach.
Second, during this time, India started making changes to its economy in 1991. This meant that “non-alignment” was no longer the basis of India’s foreign policy towards the West and other parts of the world. In 1992, the Look East Policy was made by India’s Prime Minister at the time, PV Narasimha Rao, and Dr. Manmohan Singh, who is now India’s Prime Minister. This strategy shows how India is trying to build economic and military ties with Asia.
India also became a discussion partner with ASEAN in the same year. Rao’s main goal was to connect India’s economy to an area that had historical and cultural ties with India. In the 1990s, lines were also opened with Myanmar’s dictatorship with this goal in mind.
India’s merger with the area was based on a number of factors. First of all, India’s economy was growing, especially in IT. Second, there were strong cultural ties between the two places that have never been broken. Third, exactly ten years after becoming an ASEAN sectoral discussion partner, India became an ASEAN summit partner in 2002 and joined the East Asian Summit in 2005.
Table of Contents
- 1 Look East Policy to Act East Policy
- 2 Act East Policy
- 3 India’s Act East Policy and the North-Eastern States
- 4 Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)
- 5 Pillars of ASEAN
- 6 India’s Relations with ASEAN
- 7 Aspects of ASEAN-India Relations
- 8 Economic
- 9 People to People Contact
- 10 Cultural
- 11 Security
- 12 Cooperation in Defence:
- 13 Connectivity
- 14 Significance of ASEAN-India Relations
- 15 How ASEAN is Important to India
- 16 How important India is to ASEAN
- 17 Challenges in ASEAN-India Relations
- 18 The Next Steps
Look East Policy to Act East Policy
Look East Policy
The goal of the look east strategy is to connect with East Asian countries on social, economic, and cultural levels. More specifically, the Look East Policy plans to work with the countries of South-East Asia in three ways.
First, to renew political contacts with ASEAN member states and get to know them better. Second, to improve economic interactions with South-East Asian countries, such as investment and trade, science and technology, tourism, etc. Third, to strengthen Defence and strategic links with these countries to get to know them better.
In 1992, the Look-East strategy was put into place. It was thought that it would: • Make a big difference in India’s efforts to globalise and join the world economy; • Fill the gap left by the fall of the Soviet Union, India’s biggest trading partner; and • Help the country get out of its isolation because of a global trend towards joining regions.
Factors that led to the Look East Policy: • Southeast Asian countries are located on the main routes between Europe, the United States, East Asia, and Australia. This gives Indian exporters the chance to use these countries as important stopovers. • The booming economies of Southeast Asian countries also attracted India. ASEAN was also looking for new partners and areas that hadn’t been explored yet.
• The Look-East Policy shows how India’s view of the world and its place in the world economy are changing in a strategic way.
• The Look-East Policy has a lot to do with the growth of the North-Eastern Region because it is close to South-East Asia.
China’s growing economic interest in Southeast Asian economies and better relations between India and the US also contributed to greater integration. Geographic proximity, historical, cultural, and religious ties also played a part in India’s “Look East Policy.”
So, India had to change its foreign policies and adopt what it calls a move “towards a big power strategy” that has the traits of a multi-directional foreign policy. So, it was in this situation that India’s leaders came up with the “Look East Policy,” which is a policy of active involvement with South East Asia. Under the Vajpayee government, Look East began to have both a military and an economic focus. It also has a local meaning, as in “Look East through North-East.” During this time, India signed several Defence Partnership Agreements with different Southeast Asian countries.
Act East Policy
At the ASEAN-India meeting in Myanmar in 2014, the Act East Policy was announced. The main idea behind the Act East Policy is to strengthen India’s position as a regional power and to balance China’s growing impact by building strategic and economic ties with Southeast Asian countries. India is also an important player that can help improve the physical infrastructure of the area and act as a link between South Asia and Southeast Asia.
A Comparison of “Look East” and “Act East” • The Act East Policy will focus on the “Three Cs,” or Commerce, Culture, and Connectivity, as the key ways to work with ASEAN.
Under the Look East Policy, India’s main focus was only on Southeast Asia. Under the New Look East Policy, India’s main focus has moved from Southeast Asia to the Asia-Pacific region. Special attention has been paid to “maritime security.” The main focus of cooperation is “strategic.” Bold promises were made about security, defence, and strategy, which is certainly something new that hadn’t been seen before.
India’s Act East Policy and the North-Eastern States
Act East Policy is a way for North East India and the ASEAN area to talk to each other. The goal of the “Act East Policy” is to promote economic cooperation, cultural ties, and strategic relationships with countries not only in the Asia-Pacific region, but also in the Southeast Asia region, by staying in constant contact at the bilateral, regional, and multilateral levels. This will make it easier for people from other countries in our neighbourhood to travel to the North Eastern States.
As part of both national and regional plans, there are ongoing efforts to connect the Northeast with the ASEAN region through trade, culture, people-to-people interactions, and physical infrastructure (roads, airports, power grids, etc.). Some of the most important projects are the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project, the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project, the Rhi-Tiddim Road Project, the Border Haats, etc.
Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN)
The original members of ASEAN—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand—signed the “ASEAN Declaration” (also called the “Bangkok Declaration”) on August 8, 1967, in Bangkok, Thailand. This was the beginning of ASEAN. “One Vision, One Identity, One Community” is the motto of ASEAN. Then, on January 7, 1984, Brunei Darussalam joined, followed by Viet Nam on July 28, 1995, Lao PDR and Myanmar on July 23, 1997, and Cambodia on April 30, 1999. These countries are now the ten Member States of ASEAN.
According to the ASEAN DECLARATION, the goals and purposes of ASEAN were to work together in economic, social, cultural, technical, educational, and other areas, as well as to promote peace and stability in the region by always respecting justice and the rule of law and following the principles of the United Nations Charter. It said that the Association would be open to all Southeast Asian countries that agreed with its goals, values, and purposes.
It said that ASEAN represented “the collective will of the nations of Southeast Asia to join together in friendship and cooperation and, through joint efforts and sacrifices, bring peace, freedom, and prosperity to their people and to future generations.”
Article 31 of the ASEAN Charter says that the ASEAN Chairmanship will change every year based on the order of the English names of the Member States. The ASEAN Summit and other related summits, the ASEAN Coordinating Council, the three ASEAN Community Councils, the relevant ASEAN Sectoral Ministerial Bodies and top officials, and the Committee of Permanent Representatives are all led by a member state that is in charge of the Chairmanship.
Pillars of ASEAN
The three pillars of the ASEAN Community—the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC), the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC)—are seen as the most important places for the growth and development of ASEAN and its people.
• ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC): The goal of the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC) is to build on what has been built over the years in the field of political and security cooperation. The ASEAN Leaders have agreed to set up the APSC. The APSC will try to make sure that all of the countries in the area can live in peace with each other and with the rest of the world in a fair, democratic, and peaceful way.
• AEC (ASEAN Economic Community): The creation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015 is a big step towards regional economic union in ASEAN. The AEC is a huge market with over 622 million people and a value of US$2.6 trillion. In 2014, the AEC was the third biggest economy in Asia and the seventh largest economy in the world as a whole.
• ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC): The goal of the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community is to help create an ASEAN Community that is people-focused and socially responsible. This is done so that the people and member states of ASEAN can be united and stay that way for a long time.
India’s Relations with ASEAN
Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Vietnam are all part of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN). India wants to have a strong, multifaceted relationship with ASEAN because the world’s political and economic situation has changed a lot since the early 1990s and India is moving towards economic freedom. The ‘Look East Policy’ came about because India wanted more economic room. The Look East Policy has grown into the “Act East Policy,” which is active and focused on taking action.
The dialogue relationship between India and ASEAN has been going on for 25 years now. ASEAN has been a strong regional group for 50 years, which is also the anniversary. In 2017, ASEAN and India will have talked at the summit level for 15 years. This means that the heads of government from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam, on the one hand, and India, on the other, have talked with each other for 15 years. At the same time, the year also marked the end of a five-year strategic relationship between Asia’s third-largest economy and one of the world’s most successful economic groups.
Aspects of ASEAN-India Relations
• On January 25, 2018, in New Delhi, India and ASEAN held a commemorative summit to mark the 25th anniversary of their dialogue partnership. The theme of the summit was “Shared Values, Common Destiny.”
• In November 2014, India officially announced the Act East Policy at the 12th ASEAN-India Summit and the 9th East Asia Summit in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar.
• The bond between India and ASEAN is one of the most important parts of our foreign policy and the basis of our Act East Policy. The relationship was upgraded to a Strategic Partnership in 2012. This was a necessary step after India became a sectoral partner of ASEAN in 1992, a dialogue partner in 1996, and a summit level partner at Phnom Penh in 2002. At the Bali Summit in 2003, India and the ASEAN signed the Instrument of Accession to the treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South East Asia, a framework agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation, and a joint statement for working together to fight international terrorism.
• Besides ASEAN, India has taken other policy steps in the region, such as BIMSTEC, MGC, etc., that involve some ASEAN members. India also takes part in the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting + (ADMM+), and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF).
• The ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress, and Shared Prosperity and the Plan of Action for putting it into action were completed at the 2004 summit in Vientiane.
• In April 2015, India set up a separate Mission to ASEAN and the EAS in Jakarta with its own Ambassador to improve its relationship with ASEAN and ASEAN-centered processes.
• The ASEAN-India Centre (AIC) was set up to work with organisations and think tanks in India and ASEAN on policy study, advocacy, and networking.
• Trade and investment between ASEAN and India have been steadily growing, and ASEAN is now India’s fourth biggest trading partner.
• Investment flows are also big in both directions. Since 2000, about 18.28% of all investment flows into India came from ASEAN. From April 2000 to March 2018, ASEAN sent about US$68.91 billion in FDI to India. From April 2007 to March 2015, India sent about US$38.672 billion in FDI to ASEAN countries. These numbers come from records kept by the DEA.
• With the start of the ASEAN-India Agreements on Trade in Services and Investments on July 1, 2015, the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area is now complete. ASEAN and India have also been trying to get the business sector more involved.
• India has a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with many countries in the ASEAN region. This has led to easier trade and more capital.
• The second ASEAN-India Workshop on Blue Economy was held on July 18, 2018, in New Delhi. It was co-hosted by the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam.
• The ASEAN India-Business Council (AIBC) was set up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in March 2003 as a place for business leaders from India and the ASEAN countries to meet and talk about business and share ideas.
People to People Contact
• The large number of Indians living in many Southeast Asian countries, especially Malaysia and Singapore, has helped to improve diplomatic, economic, and security ties between India and ASEAN. This has led to stronger bonds between the two groups. The Indian Diaspora is an important part of India’s soft power, and they help build a strong bond between India and the rest of the world.
• Odisha, which is in eastern India, has had a long history with Indonesia. Every November, a festival called “Bali Yatra” is held to remember the traders who went from Odisha to Bali, Java, Sumatra, and Sri Lanka to do business. Big boats called Boita were used by the traders to travel the seas.
• India and Southeast Asian countries have been connected by their cultures for a long time. This mixing of cultures and traditions has changed things like religion, language, literature, beliefs, customs, food, and building between the two areas.
• Buddhism is the spiritual centre of the relationship between ASEAN and India. Buddhists from all over the area make pilgrimages to holy places like Bodh Gaya, where Lord Buddha became enlightened under a Bodhi tree.
• The Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are very famous in Thailand and Indonesia, and they have influenced popular art forms like shadow puppetry.
• India offered to have people from ASEAN countries attend the 5th International Buddhist Conclave (IBC) in October 2016 in Varanasi.
• In January 2018, Nalanda University, the Vietnam Buddhist University, the India Foundation, and the Ministry of External Affairs of the Indian government put on the fourth International Conference on Dharma Dhamma. The theme of the conference was “State and Social Order in Dharma Dhamma Traditions.”
• The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is the main place where people from ASEAN can talk about security.
• As traditional and non-traditional problems grow, political and security partnership is becoming a key part of the relationship between ASEAN and India.
• On January 25, 2018, the leaders of ASEAN and India agreed that cooperation in the maritime domain would be the most important area of cooperation in the ASEAN-India strategic partnership.
• The ASEAN military Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) is ASEAN’s highest level of military cooperation and consultation.
• The ADMM+ brings together the Defence Ministers of Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Russia, the United States, and the 10 ASEAN countries every two years.
• The Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF) is a way for track 1.5 diplomacy to work on maritime problems that affect everyone. The 4th EAMF was held in Manado, Indonesia, on September 10 and 11, 2015.
Cooperation in Defence:
• India and most ASEAN countries take part in military and naval drills together.
In 2023, the first Asean-India Maritime Exercise will take place.
Exercise “Watershed” was held by the military in 2016.
• Vietnam has always been a close friend when it comes to defence, and Singapore is just as important a partner.
• Connecting ASEAN and India is a strategic goal for both India and the ASEAN countries.
• In 2013, India started an ASEAN Connectivity Coordinating Committee-India Meeting. This made India the third discussion partner of ASEAN to do so.
• India has made a lot of progress with the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Kaladan Multimodal Project. However, there are still discussions going on about how to improve maritime and air connections between ASEAN and India and how to turn the corridors of connectivity into economic corridors.
• The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway could be extended to Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and Vietnam.
• The proposed protocol for the India-Myanmar-Thailand Motor Vehicle Agreement (IMT MVA) has found a consensus on how to finish it. This agreement will be very important for making it possible for passenger, personal, and cargo cars to move easily along the roads that connect India, Myanmar, and Thailand.
• At the 13th ASEAN-India Summit in Malaysia in November 2015, India announced a US$1 billion Line of Credit to support projects that improve physical and digital connectivity between India and ASEAN, as well as an INR500 crore Project Development Fund to help build manufacturing hubs in CLMV countries.
Significance of ASEAN-India Relations
• Small and medium-sized businesses in the region would get a boost from better teamwork.
• Working together to share information would make innovation and research easier.
• ASEAN wants India to play a bigger part in politics and security and help make the region more governed by rules, which is important to both India and ASEAN countries.
• China’s presence in the Indian Ocean and its assertiveness in the South China Sea show how important it is for India and ASEAN states to work together.
• There is a chance that Islamic terrorism could hurt Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. India cares very much about the political security in these countries.
How ASEAN is Important to India
India wants the Asia-Pacific region to have a security system that is open, mutual, inclusive, and built on rules. ASEAN is a big part of that plan.
• From a strategic point of view, the rise of China has caused India to do its best to work with ASEAN as a regional group. India has always been a counterweight to China for the ASEAN countries. For India to be a regional power, it must work hard to improve all of its relationships with ASEAN. In this age of multilateral cooperation, the Indo-Pacific region’s policies will be determined by how India works with ASEAN.
• Economic: East and Southeast Asia are important economic blocks in the world trade system today. Together, they control more than a third of world trade. Even though the economic relationship between ASEAN and India has grown a lot since 2002, there is a lot of room for it to grow even more through trade, investment, and India joining the Asian value chain. Together, the “Make in India” initiative and the newly signed investment agreement between India and ASEAN could make it easier for India to join the Asian value chain.
• Maritime Security: Countries in the Indian Ocean Region have been hurt by the rise of piracy, illegal immigration, transnational drug, arms, and people trafficking, and maritime terrorism. ARF lets India talk about these problems, which are urgent and can only be fixed by working with other countries. India has also had some diplomatic wins at ARF, such as keeping ties after its nuclear test in 1998, isolating Pakistan during the Kargil War, and lobbying against Pakistan’s entry into the forum until 2002.
• UNSC: For India’s bid to become a regular member of the UNSC, ASEAN countries must back it.
• Connectivity: India is working on making its transit deals official and building better land, water, and air connections with this area. India is very interested in connecting with ASEAN countries because of the economic potential and strategic value of the area.
• North East India: The north-eastern part of India has the ability to become the country’s new growth engine. It is also a gateway to ASEAN. Connecting North-Eastern India to the ASEAN area by road, rail, and air is important. The benefits of such a change would be many and would affect not just India but also the whole sub area. It would also make it easier for India’s north east to join the world economy.
• South China Sea: India has economic and strategic interests in the South China Sea area, and it wants disagreements to be solved peacefully through the UN. China’s territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) put India’s future economic growth at risk and make it impossible for the area to trade and do business. After the Hague Tribunal’s decision on the South China Sea, New Delhi feels obligated to take a stand on the problem of freedom of navigation and commercial access as stated in the UNCLOS.
• Act East Policy: Trade and business ties between India and the Pacific are getting stronger and deeper because of this policy. Not only is the “Act East” strategy focused on ASEAN and the far-eastern Pacific, but Asia’s Eastern commons are becoming an increasingly important part of India’s economic growth. India’s Pacific policy is becoming more and more about money because the flow of goods and services is becoming more and more dependent on the Malacca Strait.
• APEC: India is not a part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. India needs ASEAN’s support in order to join the economic grouping.
How important India is to ASEAN
Trade and Transit: India supports rights of passage and other marine rights that are in line with international law and do not cause any problems. India is a place where goods and services from ASEAN can be sold.
Stability in the area: Because China is acting aggressively, ASEAN countries want India to take the lead in improving trade, communication, and security in the region. Due to its clear stance on maritime issues, India has been a source of strength for most ASEAN countries.
South China Sea: Freedom of navigation and security in the South China Sea are important to both India and ASEAN. China’s actions have made India more important to ASEAN because of how strong China is in the area. India has always supported negotiations that are calm and follow international law.
Challenges in ASEAN-India Relations
• It’s a big problem that jobs aren’t always done on time. For example, the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral route and the Kaladan multimodal project are still in the works. Both would make it easier for people to travel between India and the ASEAN region.
• Improving land, sea, and air links is another area of attention.
• India spends time and energy to improve its relationships with ASEAN, but it has a long way to go before it can be compared to China. For one thing, trade and business ties are not nearly as strong as they could be. China is still the regional grouping’s biggest trade partner, followed by the European Union and the U.S.
• The free movement of workers within the ASEAN Economic Community could hurt India’s plans for the mobility of skilled workers, which just started with the ASEAN-India Services Agreement. It could also make it harder for India to get loans from the area because it would be harder for money to move around.
• India’s foreign direct investment in ASEAN is also low compared to China’s. In 2015, India’s foreign direct investment (FDI) in ASEAN was worth US$ 1.2 billion, but China’s FDI in ASEAN was a huge US$ 8.15 billion.
• India’s public sector businesses and private companies haven’t put a lot of money into Southeast Asia because implementation moves slowly and they don’t want to take risks.
• There are still a lot of unfinished bilateral deals with these countries, which has stopped some business ties.
• Territorial conflicts: For a long time, ASEAN member states have been in territorial conflicts with other countries. For example, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam also claim land in the South China Sea, which China also claims.
• Rivalry in the Indo-Pacific: For a long time, the ASEAN balance was based on the idea that China was the most important economic partner and the US was the most important source of security.
Today, that balance is breaking down, and the war between Russia and Ukraine has made things even worse. This growing competition between major powers in the Indo-Pacific region is a threat to the stability on which growth and wealth in the area have been built.
• Unstable geoeconomics: The political friction in the Indo-Pacific is having an effect on trade and technology cooperation, as well as the stability of supply chains.
And this is happening at a time when ASEAN is still split within itself about how to deal with these problems.
The Next Steps
• While China is moving forward with its Belt and Road plan, India needs to start at least a couple of big connectivity projects to show that its “Act East” policy is real.
• India’s trade and investments with ASEAN are growing quickly, but India needs political allies to make sure it becomes a key player in the Asia-Pacific region. Indonesia is the biggest Muslim country in the world. The fact that it wants to work more closely with India is a good sign.
• There are more chances for a number of state governments to reach out to the ASEAN area. Several state governments have already made connections with places like Singapore and Malaysia because they want help with infrastructure.
• Building a Resilient Supply Chain: ASEAN and India are not involved in value chains in a big way right now. ASEAN and India can use the new situation to their advantage and help each other build new supply lines that are more reliable.
But ASEAN and India need to improve their logistics services and boost their transportation infrastructure in order to take advantage of this chance.
• Maritime Security in the Indo-Pacific: India’s and ASEAN’s interests depend on the security of the seas in the Indo-Pacific area.
Both sides need to work to make sure that resources are used as much as possible without hurting the sea environment. They need to take strong and responsible steps to use the ocean’s promise in a way that will last.
Also, ASEAN should stress the principles of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as a way to solve the conflicts in the South China Sea area.
• Regional Tourism: India and ASEAN should also improve regional tourism and connections between people, since they already have a lot in common in terms of their cultures and civilizations.
• Developing the Act-East Policy: Both ASEAN and India will be able to deal with some of the problems if they are fair to each other and understand each other’s worries.
India’s Act East Policy will show what it can do by working together in the areas of digitalization, pharmaceuticals, agriculture education, and green growth.