India and ASEAN must enhance their partnership

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (centre) taking part in the ASEAN-India Summit on the sidelines of the 2021 ASEAN summit, held online on a live video conference in Brunei on October 28. Handout/ASEAN Summit 2021/AFP

The 18th India-ASEAN Summit was held virtually on October 28, with the presence of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei as ASEAN chairman and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The two sides will mark the completion of 30 years of their partnership in 2022, which is designated as the year of ASEAN-India Friendship. The milestone coincides with India’s 75th anniversary of independence.

Details will be worked out and a plethora of activity is anticipated. India has Singapore, among the most organised of ASEAN countries, as its country coordinator. The ASEAN chairman in 2022 will be Cambodia, whose president Hun Sen is well known to India ever since he assumed power.

It is important that this year is celebrated imaginatively. Inclusion of contemporary ideas and refreshing ambience must avoid repetition of past celebrations of anniversaries. As both ASEAN and India have youthful populations, it merits focus on new areas.

The context and current focus of the India-ASEAN Summit is the Indo-Pacific. Modi noted the special role of ASEAN in India’s Act East Policy and the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) as also in the Indo Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI). Along with the ASEAN’s Outlook for the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) these are the framework for the vision and mutual cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region.

ASEAN is aware that India was a protagonist of the Quad’s focus on ASEAN centrality and its functional collaboration with Quad countries, all of whom are dialogue partners of ASEAN. Though the Quad is not mentioned in the documents, the collaboration is not restrained in any manner.

Significantly a Joint statement on Cooperation on the AOIP for Peace, Stability, and Prosperity in the Region was adopted. It builds on the Delhi Declaration of January 2018. This reaffirms that ASEAN centrality, openness, transparency, inclusivity and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) would all remain important aspects of partnership. All ASEAN members supported this.

The statement mentions four areas from the AOIP: maritime cooperation, connectivity, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and economic cooperation. 21 paragraphs identify areas of cooperation, including sub-regional cooperation, human capital development, green infrastructure, agriculture and the utilisation of complementarities.

Strengthening this partnership remains the goal of the dialogue partnership between India and ASEAN. This is spelled out in the chairman’s statement. Among various ideas which were discussed some significant one’s merit attention.

Expansion of education, collaboration among universities, green economies, achieving the SDGs, start-ups and impact investment could be among the ideas to guide the expansion of the Indo-ASEAN partnership.

The Nalanda University, an East Asia Summit project, would welcome a collaboration with ASEAN. While some ASEAN countries have contributed, it is now time for ASEAN as a whole, to be a partner.

The offer of 1,000 PhD scholarships at Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) needs modulation to master’s level to allow greater utilisation. ASEAN countries have not utilised the PhD level scholarships adequately. The IITs are world class institutions and can help ASEAN scholars to achieve higher goals.

There are adequate fora and meetings already in place. They need to be result oriented and show achievements. All India-ASEAN activity is normally funded by the Indian contribution to the ASEAN and related funds. It would be a good occasion for ASEAN to start contributing to the emerging programmes.

India-ASEAN projects need closer attention. The welcome establishment of a project monitoring unit within the ASEAN Secretariat shows the intent to focus on implementation and achieving the goals set when these projects were undertaken.

Another area of focus is the pandemic and its post-pandemic recovery. India has been working with ASEAN to support their facilities and provide material and monetary support. India’s contribution of $1 million to the Covid-19 ASEAN Response Fund was appreciated but the requirements are huge. With the reopening of vaccine exports, ASEAN countries would benefit. They would also benefit from the Quad vaccine initiative in a big way. It remains unclear whether ASEAN seeks a partnership or expects preferential treatment for its public health arrangements. Some ASEAN countries were generous in supporting India during the second wave of the pandemic.

The economic dimension of the partnership requires a review of the Free Trade Agreement. The chairman’s statement mentioned the review of the ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) and ASEAN prefers to see “enhanced utilisation and effective implementation of the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area (AIFTA)”. This is important since India is not in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). It needs the FTA to be updated, balanced and contribute to the development of resilient supply chains between India and ASEAN.

India-ASEAN trade is falling over the last three years from $97 billion in 2018, $79 billion in 2020. In the first half of 2021 it is only $42 billion. Its true potential is yet to be realised. ASEAN runs an annual average surplus of $20 billion. A reordering of the FTA and a better utilisation of it could lead to expanded trade particularly through new supply chains.

The International Solar Alliance (ISA) is not mentioned among the 21 areas in the AOIP Cooperation Statement. The US has recently joined it to become the 101st member. Only Myanmar and Cambodia are ISA members. Nor is the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Initiative (CDRI) mentioned, with which no ASEAN member is associated. Most ideas are promoted by ASEAN. For a true partnership, mutual attention to each other’s initiatives is necessary.

There is recognition of India’s contribution to narrowing the development gaps within ASEAN countries. India extended support to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam by setting up training centres for information technology, vocational training, English language and entrepreneurship development.

India also announced support to ASEAN’s Cultural Heritage List. This is a nascent idea building on the ASEAN Declaration on Cultural Heritage. ASEAN will create its own list of such assets. India’s prompt support will see officials of meet soon to discuss collaboration.

India has contributed to the restoration work in temples in Siem Reap and Yogyakarta. Given the shared histories and cultural roots of many Southeast Asian civilisations, this could be impactful.

The 18th summit focused on the gamut of activity, covering 30 mechanisms. The main emphasis was on the sturdy nature of Indo-ASEAN partnership which was raised to a strategic partnership in 2012.

India and ASEAN have shared values and ideas. Their relationship needs more substantive collaboration.

The 30th anniversary is a good time to deepen the partnership.

Gurjit Singh is a former Indian ambassador to Indonesia, ASEAN, Germany, Ethiopia and the African Union.

THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK