The Miticool Village Fridge, which requires no electricity, is an example of India's capacity for frugal innovation. (Photo: Entrepreneurship Development Cell MGIT / Facebook)

Frugal Innovations: New Delhi’s Soft Power Potential in ASEAN

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India has the opportunity to boost its soft power in ASEAN, including by promoting and sharing its lauded ‘frugal innovations’ to help low-income Southeast Asians to improve their lives.

For years, strategic experts and diplomatic communities have been searching for ways to enhance cooperation between ASEAN and India – two vibrant economies that share similarities in terms of development and growth. Yet, despite ASEAN-India relations progressing from a sectoral dialogue partnership in 1992 to a full dialogue partnership in 1996, the cooperation between the two sides has not been optimal.

On the economic front, although both sides are connected geographically and have experienced tremendous economic growth (at least before the Covid-19 pandemic), bilateral trade has not reached its highest potential. India is ASEAN’s sixth-largest trading partner, accounting only for around 3 per cent of overall ASEAN trade. Meanwhile, ASEAN is India’s fifth-largest trading partner. Despite Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nod towards Southeast Asia with his ‘Act East’ rhetoric, the ASEAN-India relationship is overshadowed by China’s influence in the region, with China steadfastly remaining ASEAN’s biggest trading partner since 2009. Sino-ASEAN trade relations are projected to grow with the coming into force of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement on 1 January 2022, while India lags behind after its withdrawal from RCEP.

The ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute’s State of Southeast Asia Survey 2021 highlights that low trust remains a significant challenge in overall ASEAN-India relations. For the fourth time in a row, most Southeast Asian elites did not see New Delhi as a trusted major power because it was perceived to be too preoccupied with its domestic affairs and to lack the capacity and will for global leadership.

How then can India and ASEAN forge deeper collaboration ahead? Projecting soft power is critical for enhancing partnerships, especially where mutual trust remains low. In a recent op-ed, Joseph S. Nye. Jr., who popularised the term ‘soft power’, reiterated that in today’s geopolitics, where coercion, intimidation, and power-play have become dominant, the power of attraction is needed more than ever.

New Delhi has initiated several attempts to enhance its soft power vis-à-vis ASEAN. In the late 2000s, India attempted to promote ‘Buddhist diplomacy’ by developing joint Buddhist pilgrimage tours in India and Southeast Asia. This effort was expanded with the establishment of Nalanda University in 2008, a cultural people-to-people initiative to energise ASEAN and India’s historical links that can be traced back over a millennium.

As 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-India dialogue relations, it is a critical juncture at which to rethink how to enhance cooperation.

India also promoted educational diplomacy. At the 25th anniversary of the ASEAN-India Summit in New Delhi in 2018, Mr. Modi announced 1,000 fellowships for ASEAN citizens to pursue doctoral programmes at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) branch campus of their choice. This effort was aimed at exploring future cooperation mainly in research, human development, and technology.

Several studies have highlighted that India needs to project its soft power by exporting cultural products such as Bollywood, to raise awareness of Indian culture and demolish stereotypes about how under-developed and unequal Indian society is. As an op-ed from Lowy Institute argues, India’s pop culture appeal, which apparently ranks just behind that of the U.S.’s, remains one of its strongest yet under-utilised diplomatic tools.

In addition, India must tap its ability to scale up ‘frugal innovations’ and potentially share these solutions to help ASEAN’s lower-income communities. India’s frugal innovations are well regarded in the world as a success story of human ingenuity, delivering customer value at low price points. One such innovation is the rubber-based prosthetic Jaipur Foot, which helps millions of people with disabilities worldwide. Others include the low-cost Mitticool Refrigerator, which cools food without electricity, and a solar powered ‘e-rickshaw’, which can help the transportation industry to decarbonise.

Demand for these frugal innovations is likely to be strong in the ASEAN region, especially in the least-developed member states where many of the citizens cannot afford to acquire high-cost technologies or live below the poverty line. Exposure to India’s frugal innovations could help the poorest Southeast Asians to have more options for high-quality but low-cost consumer goods. As climate change and inequalities worsen, there is an urgent need for creative solutions to solve affordability and environmental challenges. Domestically, India’s small and medium-sized enterprises will also benefit from this increased exposure.

As 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-India dialogue relations, it is a critical juncture at which to rethink how to enhance cooperation. India should leverage on its considerable soft power potential to advance its engagement in ASEAN and take the opportunity to claim its seat at the great power table.

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Melinda Martinus is the Lead Researcher in Socio-cultural Affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.


Laura Lee is currently a Public Policy and Global Affairs undergraduate at Nanyang Technological University and an intern at the ASEAN Studies Centre.