As ASEAN and India commemorate the 30th anniversary of dialogue relations this year, the two parties have little to show in terms of functional collaboration. A reassessment of the relationship should focus on three areas: connectivity, trade and public health.
ASEAN-India dialogue relations mark their 30th anniversary this year, with Singapore starting its three-year term as country coordinator in 2021. However, relations progressed slower than expected despite New Delhi’s reaffirmation of its engagement with ASEAN as the crux of its major foreign policy initiatives — its ‘Act East’ and ‘Neighbourhood First’ policies. In truth, the dialogue partners have relatively little to show for in terms of functional collaboration and implementation on the ground compared to some of ASEAN’s other regional partners such as Japan, China and South Korea for instance. This has stoked scepticism in ASEAN as to whether India has the political will to follow through on deliverables to deepen the relationship.
Southeast Asia’s central location in the Indo-Pacific is of vital importance to India’s strategic considerations. A steely-eyed assessment of the partnership should focus on three areas — physical infrastructure, trade and public health. This would provide a good starting point for the partnership to move forward.
Connectivity remains an important element of India’s engagement in Southeast Asia. Not just from a foreign policy perspective as China makes inroads into the region with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but also from a domestic angle. Development of India’s strategically important northeastern frontier — a region sharing an over 1,600 km long land border with Myanmar and long been plagued by cross-border insurgency — requires transnational cooperation with ASEAN countries.
Projects in the pipeline have seen multiple delays. Both the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway — with a proposed plan to extend to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam — as well as the Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project jointly developed by India and Myanmar have lagged behind deadlines for years. With uncertainties in junta-controlled Myanmar, these projects might face further delays.
However, the trilateral highway — which is at an advanced stage now — will likely come through as New Delhi walks a diplomatic tightrope of pragmatic engagement of the Tatmadaw on issues of concern, even as it calls for a return to democracy. Acknowledging the reality that New Delhi has to have some level of engagement with whoever is in power in Myanmar, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla made a two-day visit to Naypyidaw and Yangon last December. He brought a million doses of Covid-19 vaccines and a guarantee of ‘expeditious implementation of ongoing connectivity initiatives’. Whether India makes good on the guarantee remains to be seen.
India’s decision to withdraw from the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) disappointed many ASEAN member states, particularly Singapore, which acted as an interlocutor during negotiations with India. New Delhi pulled out of the talks for the mega trade pact due to India’s trade deficits with most RCEP participants. It also faced opposition from several domestic sectors, such as dairy producers. Another key concern was to avoid becoming a ‘dumping ground’ for cheap Chinese goods.
New Delhi should consider weighing the merits of joining the RCEP once it is ready, and ASEAN should leave the door open for India to resume negotiations. India will need to focus on creating a more robust business environment, and increase the competitiveness of local businesses. These are substantial challenges, but India needs to act fast. It might miss out on potential foreign investments from RCEP member countries. Also, RCEP might lead to preferential trade arrangements within the bloc, which could be detrimental to India’s growing manufacturing sector and the ‘Made in India’ initiative.
New Delhi should consider weighing the merits of joining the RCEP once it is ready, and ASEAN should leave the door open for India to resume negotiations.
ASEAN appreciates India as another source for Covid-19 vaccines, which have been critical in the fight against the pandemic. Nevertheless, India’s image as a reliable supplier was affected when New Delhi imposed vaccine-export restrictions in early 2021 due to surging infections and the urgent need to inoculate its population. Several ASEAN countries had to seek alternatives from China and Russia.
Despite exports resuming since October 2021, it is critical that India avoids another ban to rebuild its credibility and ensures that exports continue even during difficult times. As India has fully vaccinated 75 per cent of its adult population with two doses, future domestic demand will be driven by the other 25 per cent and the possible booster shots. This suggests that New Delhi will be able to better plan for its vaccine needs and preempt the shortages of 2021. In addition, India’s engagement with ASEAN in health security cooperation can go beyond vaccine export and distribution to a long-term strategy of enhanced joint research to combat future infectious diseases and substantiate ASEAN’s healthcare capacity.
While challenges remain in the various aspects of regional integration, India shares a mutual interest with ASEAN for inclusive maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) and ASEAN’s Outlook for the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) are complementary frameworks that aim to draw upon existing regional multilateral mechanisms rather than create new ones.
However, the Indo-Pacific concept remains hazily defined, often drawing association with the Quadrilateral Security Grouping (Quad) — of which India is a member — and a China-containment narrative that comes along with it. In essence, ASEAN remains wary of the Quad’s military-security framing and the grouping’s preoccupation with great power rivalry in the region.
India can reassure ASEAN that the Quad is trying to shed its anti-China narrative with a foray into non-traditional security cooperation. In fact, the Quad has begun to broaden its focus areas beyond defence cooperation — a development that ASEAN views favourably. Since December last year, the Quad Vaccine Partnership has provided 79 million doses, and more than half of these doses were allocated for ASEAN members. Moreover, for the first time, the Quad directly coordinated with the ASEAN Secretariat for vaccine distribution.
ASEAN-India dialogue relations has come some way in the past 30 years. Looking forward, India can signal its long-term commitment to the region by consistently pursuing results-oriented, practical initiatives through the ASEAN way of dialogue and consensus. A sustained focus on the three areas above will put the dialogue partnership in good stead.
Nazia Hussain is Senior Analyst in the Centre for Multilateralism Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
Tan Ming Hui is Associate Research Fellow in the Policy Studies Group at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.