Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

From Look East to Act East: India's growing engagement with ASEAN and beyond

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Ashok Sajjanhar
    Venue: Tamil Nadu National Law School, Trichy
    Date: April 26, 2018

Prof Kamla Sankaran, Vice Chancellor, faculty members and dear students.

I am delighted to get this opportunity to speak with you. I express my sincere gratitude and appreciation to the Tamil Nadu National Law School for the kind invitation and to the External Publicity Division, MEA specially Sq Ldr Priya Joshi for the excellent arrangements for my visit.

I will briefly touch upon the historical and civilizational ties between India and South East Asia, discuss the evolution of our relations over the last seventy years with this region, speak about the present state of our engagement with ASEAN and East Asia, and end with prospects and outlook for the future. I will be happy to respond to any questions you might have and listen to your comments.

Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN):

As all of you would know ASEAN stands for the ‘Association of South East Asian Nations.’ It currently comprises 10 members but when it was initially established, it consisted of 5 members. The then Foreign Minister of Thailand Thanat Khoman who was trying to promote peace between the newly independent Malaysia with Indonesia and Philippines in 1965, suggested the creation of a regional body to protect themselves against the spread and rise of communism in the region. Thanat Khoman can hence be considered the father of modern day ASEAN, just as Robert Schumann and Jean Monnet are considered to be father figures of the modern day European Union.

The first meeting between the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand took place in Bangkok on 8th August 1967. The Bangkok Declaration adopted on that occasion to mark the establishment of this regional body inter alia identified the basic aims and objectives as ‘’cooperation in political, security, military, economic, social, cultural, technical, educational and other fields, and promotion of regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and rule of law and adherence to principles of the United Nations Charter.’’ It stipulated that ASEAN would be open for participation by all States in Southeast Asian region subscribing to its aims, principles and purposes.

Over the following two decades, the Organization expanded to ten members with Brunei joining in 1984, soon after it gained independence from Britain on 1st January, 1984; Vietnam joining in 1995; Laos and Myanmar in 1995, and finally Cambodia in 1997. Timor L’este is waiting in the wings to join as the 11th member of the Organization.

ASEAN celebrated its 50th anniversary of establishment in 2017 at its Summit in Manila, Philippines. Over the last 50 years ASEAN has evolved into one of the most successful regional organizations of the world.

In the early nineties, some member countries suggested the creation of an East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC) with the objective of diminishing and constraining the expanding role of the United States in the region. This was resisted by USA and Japan. As a result, an informal structure of ASEAN plus Three (APT) comprising of ASEAN countries, China, Japan and Republic of Korea was constituted in 1997. This body marked the twentieth anniversary of its establishment last year in November at the Summit in Manila. Several other bodies like the ASEAN Regional Forum which was established in 1994 and currently has 27 members, including USA and Russia, and the East Asia Summit (EAS) with 18 members, including USA and Russia, which was created in 2006 have been formed over this period. ASEAN decided to set up an East Asian Community beginning 2015 in which there would be freedom of movement of goods, services, investment and people. Although EAS has been launched, it will take a few years to bring down all barriers between the ASEAN member States so that it can be declared to be a full-fledged Community. Other bodies like the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) and ADMM Plus have also been established to promote security through meetings between Defence Ministers of ASEAN Nations, and by coopting countries from outside the Region in the Plus format.

Indian Influence on Southeast Asia:

Southeast Asia was hugely influenced by Indian culture and civilisation from around 200 BC until around the 15th century. Kingdoms located on the south east coast of the Indian Subcontinent established trade, cultural and political relations with Southeast Asian kingdoms in Burma, Thailand, Indonesia, Malay Peninsula, Cambodia, and, to a lesser extent, Vietnam. Unlike the Hindu kingdoms within the Indian sub-continent, the Tamil kingdoms of the south-eastern coast of the peninsula did not have culture restrictions on crossing the sea. This led to more exchanges through the sea routes into Southeast Asia.

The peoples of maritime Southeast Asia — present day Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines — are thought to have migrated southwards from southern China sometime between 2500 and 1500 BC. The influence of the civilization of the Indian subcontinent gradually became predominant among them, and among the peoples of the Southeast Asian mainland. Tamil traders, adventurers, teachers and priests continued to be the dominating influence in Southeast Asia until about 1500 CE. Tamil kings often ruled the earliest states in these regions. Hinduism and Buddhism both spread to these states from India and for many centuries co-existed there with mutual toleration. Eventually the states of the mainland became mainly Buddhist.


The first of the Hinduised states to achieve widespread importance was the Kingdom of Funan founded in 1st century CE in what is now Cambodia. Funan flourished for some 500 years. It carried on a prosperous trade with India and China, and its engineers developed an extensive canal system. An elite practised statecraft, art and science, based on Indian culture. Vassal kingdoms spread to southern Vietnam in the east and to the Malay Peninsula in the west.

In late 6th century CE, dynastic struggles caused the collapse of the Funan empire. It was succeeded by another Hindu-Khmer state, Chen-la, which lasted until the 9th century. Then, a Khmer king, Jayavarman II (about 800-850) established a capital at Angkor in central Cambodia. He promoted a belief which identified the king with the Hindu God Shiva. The Angkor empire flourished from the 9th to the early 13th century. It reached the peak of its fame under Jayavarman VII at the end of the 12th century, when its conquests extended into Thailand in the west (where it conquered the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati) and into Champa in the east. Its most celebrated memorial is the great temple of Angkor Wat, built in early 12th century.


Thailand's relationship with India spans over several thousand years and understandably resulted in an adaptation of Hindu culture to suit the Thai environment. The single most significant cultural contribution of India, for which Thailand is greatly indebted to India, is Buddhism. Propagated in Thailand in 3rd century B.C. by Buddhist monks sent by King Asoka, it was adopted as the state religion of Thailand and has ruled the hearts and minds of Thais ever since. Presently 58,000,000 Thais, an overwhelming 94% of the total Thai populace adheres to Buddhism. Besides Buddhism, Thailand also adopted other typically Indian religious and cultural traditions. The ceremonies and rites especially as regards the ‘Monarchy’ evidence a strong Hindu influence.

Indians who moved into Thailand in the Sukhothai period (1275–1350) were either merchants who came to Siam or Thailand, for the purpose of trading or Brahmins who played an important role in the Siamese court as experts in astrology and in conducting ceremonies. These Brahmins popularized Hindu beliefs and traditions. During this period, Brahman temples already existed. Brahmins conducted ceremonies in the court. The concepts of divine kingship and royal ceremonies are clear examples of the influence of Brahmanism.

The Coronation of Thai monarch is conducted more or less in its original form even up to the present reign. The Thai idea that the king is a reincarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu was adopted from Indian tradition. Though this belief no longer exists today, the tradition to call each Thai king of the present Chakri dynasty Rama, Rama being an incarnation of Vishnu, with an ordinal number, such as Rama I, Rama II etc. is still in practice.

In the Ayutthaya period (1350–1767), more Tamil merchants entered the South of the country by boat as evidenced by the statues of Hindu gods excavated in the South.

Thai literature and drama draws great inspiration from Indian arts and legend. The Hindu epic of Ramayana is as popular in Thailand as it is in India. Thailand has adapted the Ramayana to suit the Thai lifestyle in the past and has come up with its own version of the Ramayana, namely, the ‘Ramakien’.


Thai language bears close affinity with Dravidian languages. An indication of the close linguistic affiliation between India and Thailand can be found in common Thai words like Ratha Mantri, Vidhya, Samuthra, Karuna, Prannee etc. which are almost identical to their Indian counterparts. King Ramkhamhaeng the Great created the Thai alphabet in 1283. He modelled it on ancient Indian alphabets of Sanskrit and Pali through the medium of old Khmer characters.


Several Thai ceremonies have been adopted from Indian tradition. These include ceremonies related to ordination, marriage, merit making and cremation. Though Lord Buddha is the prime inspiration of Thailand, Brahma and other Hindu deities are widely worshipped among the Thais, due in part to the popularity of the Hindu ceremonial rites, which are used especially for royal ceremonies. Some of these Ceremonies are:

(1) The Royal Ploughing Ceremony, which is officiated by His Majesty the king in May every year with pomp. Originally a Brahmanic rite, it was adopted to mark the beginning of the farming season as also to bless all farmers with fertility for the year.

(2) Loy Krathong – the Festival of Lights which is celebrated on the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month. The floating of lanterns, which began in the Sukhothai period, continued throughout the different stages of Thai history. The present-day understanding is that the festival is celebrated as an act of worship to the Goddess of the Waters for providing the water much needed throughout the year, and as a way of asking forgiveness if they have polluted it or used it carelessly.

(3) Songkran Festival: Songkran day marks Thai New Year day. "Songkran" signifies the sun's move into the first house of the zodiac.

(4) Visakha Puja Day which is considered as the greatest Buddhist holy day as it commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Lord Buddha.


The Indonesian archipelago saw the rise of Hinduised empires of Sumatra and Java. In the islands of Southeast Asia, the first organised state to achieve fame was the Hindu Malay kingdom of Srivijaya, with its capital at Palembang in southern Sumatra. Its commercial pre-eminence was based on command of the sea route from India to China between Sumatra and the Malay peninsula (later known as Straits of Malacca). In the 6th – 7th centuries, Srivijaya succeeded Funan as the leading state in Southeast Asia. Its ruler was the overlord of the Malay peninsula and western Java as well as Sumatra. Like most early kingdoms of South East Asia, Srivijaya was Dravidian in culture and administration, and Buddhism became firmly entrenched there. The expansion of Srivijaya was resisted in eastern Java, where the powerful Buddhist Sailendra dynasty arose. From the 7th century onwards there was frenetic activity in temple building in eastern Java. The most impressive of the ruins is at Borobudur, considered to have been the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Sailendra rule spread to southern Sumatra, and up to Malay peninsula to Cambodia (where it was replaced by the Angkor kingdom). In the 9th century, the Sailendras moved to Sumatra, and a union of Srivijaya and Sailendras formed an empire which dominated much of South East Asia for the next five centuries. With departure of the Sailendras a new kingdom appeared in eastern Java, which reverted from Buddhism to Hinduism. After 500 Years of supremacy Srivijaya was superseded by Majapahit.

The various Indianised states and empires of this first 1500 years CE, though founded by Indian colonisation and maintaining diplomatic contacts with India, remained politically independent of the Indian kingdoms. The only exception to this was the temporary conquest of Malaya by the Chola kingdom of southern India in the 11th century, but the Sailendra kings of Srivijaya were victorious in a long war against the Chola armies.

Hindu priests and Buddhist monks accompanied mercantile class and assumed a leading role in spreading the message of Indian thought and culture to the entire Southeast Asian region. Since they had no political ambitions and were living in hermitages and ashrams, the local people welcomed them.

Thus merchants, monks and Hindu Brahmin priests travelled to faraway kingdoms like Cambodia and Indonesia in large numbers and India’s culture, religion and civilisation spread to different parts of Southeast Asia. The kings of the region wore Indian made silk and brocade textiles on ceremonious occasions and donned jewels imported from India. Printed and woven textiles were eagerly sought after by the common people.

Indian religion, political thought, literature, mythology, artistic motifs and style, were absorbed deeply into local culture as greater interaction with Indians who settled in the courts of South East Asia took place.

Yet India’s cultural conquests were peaceful and without forced conversions. There was no evidence of violence, colonisation and subjugation and there was no extensive migration from India to the countries of Southeast Asia. The Indians who went there did not go to rule nor had any interest in controlling from afar. Indian influence travelled to southeast Asia through trade, religion and philosophy and not by sword or violence or conquest India’s Relations with Southeast Asia from 1947-1992:

India’s policy towards South East Asia in the early years of independence, more precisely until the late 50’s was dynamic, forward looking and in complete empathy and solidarity with the hopes and aspirations of Southeast Asian people. India considered the struggle of Southeast countries against colonial rule as integral to its own struggle for freedom. It was with this understanding India played an active role in mobilizing world opinion against the Dutch Government’s effort to the reimposition of colonial rule in Indonesia during 1948 and took active interest in various phases of the struggle in Indochina. Nehru believed that India could play a major role in Asia, especially in Southeast Asia, in the context of decolonisation and opposition to the Cold War.

During this period, India’s foreign policy towards Southeast Asia was marked by two basic postulates: (i) Colonialism must be removed and all vestiges of imperialism must be liquidated; and (ii) No big or medium powers be allowed to dominate the area so as to fill the power vacuum that had emerged consequent to withdrawal of the European powers from Southeast Asia. Indian interaction with nations of Indochina was also aimed at removing all external influences that were deemed to be inimical to the region’s future development.

Towards the end of the 1950’s, Indian engagement in Southeast Asia took a back seat due to the intensity of Cold War politics. Relations between India, Malaysia and Singapore flourished, but the Indian foreign policy apparatus started losing interest in Southeast Asia. Differing perceptions in strategic thinking of India and Southeast Asia also contributed to the drift away from each other.

ASEAN came into existence when the war in Indo-china was escalating. The general pro-western orientation of the original five members of ASEAN compelled India to distance itself from ASEAN. Yet, India was not hostile unlike China and some other powers. However, during this period of hibernation, India-Southeast Asia relations experienced a discontinuity. Besides, they also began to travel in different directions in their paths to progress.

End of the Cold War:

The Cold War politics that stood in the way of benign and mutually beneficial interaction between India and Southeast Asia ended in 1991. Without the distorting prism of the Cold War, India and ASEAN came together on the basis of mutuality of interests. The post-Cold War era indeed ushered in a new phase of rediscovery and renaissance in the relationship between India and ASEAN. The 1990’s offered several opportunities and challenges for both India and Southeast Asia.

With the formal end of the Cold War, India, for the first time in its contemporary history, possessed relatively greater freedom to chart its own course of action, best suited to its interests, both internally as well as externally. India began to believe that diplomacy could be used to secure economic as well as strategic interests.

Look East Policy:

Look East Policy (LEP) that was put in place by the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1992 under radically different geo-political and economic circumstances was primarily focused on strengthening ties between India and ASEAN countries. Economies of the 6 ASEAN countries (as mentioned above, 4 countries joined the grouping later in the ‘90s) were growing at a rapid pace, earning them the sobriquet of Asian Tigers. On the contrary, the licence permit raj put in place by India after independence and the oil shocks of the ‘70s and ‘80s had resulted in a situation which reduced the import cover of the country to a mere 10 days as against the normally acceptable healthy level of 3 months. End of the cold war and disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 provided a welcome opportunity to India to reach out to South East Asia to capitalize upon its historical, cultural and civilisational linkages with this region.

The Look East Policy registered impressive gains for twenty years after its inception. Having become a sectoral partner of ASEAN in 1992, India became a dialogue partner and member of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1996. India and ASEAN entered into a summit partnership in 2002, the tenth anniversary of LEP, and launched negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in goods in 2003. These discussions culminated in a bilateral deal being concluded in 2009 and becoming effective in 2010. Bilateral trade and investment showed impressive gains in the first decade of this century. While bilateral trade had increased from USD 2 billion in 1992 to USD 12 billion in 2002, registering a growth of 12% annually, it zoomed to USD 72 billion in 2012 with a cumulative annual growth rate of around 22% over the preceding 10 years.

The last few years however failed to realize the promise to advance the relationship to the next higher level. Even Hillary Clinton, the then US Secretary of State during her visit to India in 2011 remarked that India should not merely ‘’Look’’ towards the East but more importantly ‘’Act’’ and ‘’Engage’’ with the East.

Act East Policy (AEP):

The NDA Government’s Act East Policy enunciated in Nov, 2014 within six months of its assuming power in May, 2014, sought not only to revive and reinvigorate India’s relations with ASEAN but expand its engagement beyond this region to encompass a much wider expanse spanning from the Koreas in the North to Australia and New Zealand in the South, from Bangladesh in India's neighborhood to Fiji and Pacific Island countries in the far East. During the visit of Bangladesh President to India in Dec, 2014, the first after a gap of 40 years, PM Modi stated that India's Act East Policy commenced from Bangladesh. LEP provided a welcome opportunity to India to reach out to South-East Asia to capitalize upon its historical, cultural and civilisational linkages with the region. As Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister said at the ninth edition of Delhi Dialogue, India's age old ties with South-East Asia have been established through culture, trade and religion and not through ''conquest and colonization.''

ASEAN continues to form the central pillar of India’s Act East Policy. This is evident from the very active exchange of visits that has taken place between India and this Region over the last 3 years plus. PM Modi himself has travelled to Singapore twice, once to attend the State funeral of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, the legendary Lee Kuan Yew in March, 2015, and again to mark the 50th anniversary of establishment of bilateral relations and establish a strategic partnership in Nov, 2015; to Myanmar twice, once to participate in the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the India-ASEAN Summit in Nov, 2014, and again on a bilateral visit in September, 2017 on way back from China after attending the BRICS Summit; to Malaysia in Nov, 2015 for a bilateral visit as well as to attend EAS and the India-ASEAN Summit; to Laos to participate in the East Asia Summit and India-ASEAN Summit in Sept, 2016; to Vietnam on a bilateral visit in Sept, 2016; and to Philippines in Nov, 2017 to participate in the East Asia Summit and India-ASEAN Summit. He also made a short stopover in Thailand on way to Japan in November 2016 to pay respect to the venerable, departed king Bhumibol Adulyadej. Visits from India have been reciprocated by high level visits from ASEAN States to India. Relations which were earlier being seen as lackadaisical are again assuming renewed vigour.

PM Modi is expected to travel to Indonesia in June, 2018. The External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has visited Indonesia, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Myanmar and other countries in the region during this period.

From ASEAN also, several visits to India have taken place including that of the Prime Minister of Vietnam in Oct, 2014, President of Singapore for celebrations of 50th Anniversary of establishment of diplomatic relations etc. All the ten Heads of State/Government of the ASEAN nations travelled to India in Jan, 2018 to participate in the Commemorative Summit marking 25 years of the Dialogue Partnership between India and ASEAN and also to attend the Republic Day celebrations as Chief Guests. Visits of several senior Ministers in both directions have also taken place to provide a strong impetus to engagement between India and ASEAN.

India and ASEAN are natural partners in their desire to create free, open and inclusive regional security architecture.

Currently, there exist 30 different dialogue mechanisms between India and the ASEAN states focusing on a range of sectors. These comprise an annual Summit and seven Ministerial meetings focused on a variety of areas that include foreign affairs, economy, environment, tourism etc. The ASEAN-India Centre (AIC), established in 2013, has enhanced the India-ASEAN strategic partnership by concentrating on policy research and recommendations, as well as meetings between think-tanks and similar institutions in the two regions. AIC seeks to bridge the existing information divide amongst people of the two regions. Exchange programmes have been put in place for frequent interaction between students, senior officials, diplomats, academics, media professionals etc.


Myanmar occupies a special position in our matrix of ties with ASEAN states. It is contiguous to our North-East region sharing a land boundary of 1,700 kms with 4 states including Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. Projects such as the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral highway can prove to be a game-changer to connect India’s North-East with ASEAN countries. India is a party to the ambitious Trans-Asian railway project but progress has been less than satisfactory on account of inadequate political will of the stake-holders and differences on alignment of the rail network amongst participating countries. Without adequate cross-border connectivity, it would be well-nigh impossible for India’s north-eastern states to reap the full advantages of our Act East policy.

In addition to North-Eastern States, West Bengal is ideally poised to play a significant role in and become a major beneficiary of India’s Act East policy. The Kaladan Multimodal Transport Project (KMMTP) seeks to connect Kolkata with Sittwe port in Myanmar going further to Lashio via Kaladan river boat route and then on to Mizoram in India by road transport . Originally, the project which started in 2008 was scheduled to be completed by 2014. It is likely to be completed and become operational by 2016. This presents a huge opportunity to both India and ASEAN to significantly upgrade their ties.


Thailand also occupies a unique place in promoting India’s Act East Policy. In addition to the ancient and historical cultural, maritime, business, religious and linguistic ties between the two countries, the large Indian diaspora which has settled in Thailand since the end of the nineteenth century presents a unique opportunity to craft a rapidly expanding relationship between the two countries. After the highly successful visit of Vice President Ansari to Bangkok and Chiang Mai in early Feb, 2016, several high-level visits to India including the maiden visit of Thai Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, visit by the then Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn (and currently Rama X, the King of Thailand), and by the highly talented, multi-faceted Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn to receive the first International Sanskrit prize took place during succeeding months. These provided a further fillip to our bilateral engagement and strengthened ties providing greater substance to India’s Act East Policy.

Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam are other member States of ASEAN which have strong bilateral relations with India and which are significant partners in providing a quantum jump to our ties with this region. Singapore in addition to having strong and vibrant trade and economic relations with India and being the second largest source of foreign direct investment and the first ASEAN nation to establish a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India has always been supportive of stronger and closer ties between India and ASEAN. In fact, it was Goh Chok Thong, the then Prime Minister of Singapore who in 2004 equated ASEAN with the body of a large airliner with China as one of the wings and the need to provide a second wing in the form of strong relations with India.

Relations with Indonesia present significant possibilities with new dynamic and popular leaders in both the countries. PM Modi had a productive and fruitful meeting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Myanmar in Nov, 2014 on the side-lines of the East Asia Summit. President Widodo paid a bilateral visit to India in Dec, 2016. He again came to Delhi for the Commemorative Summit and as one of the Chief Guests at our Republic Day celebrations in January, 2018. As mentioned above, PM Modi is expected to visit Indonesia over the next few months. Relations have been further advanced by the visits of VP Hamid Ansari in November, 2015 and March, 2017, and by EAM Sushma Swaraj in April, 2015. Indonesia has emerged as the second largest trading partner of India amongst ASEAN nations. Although cultural and literary interaction between the two countries is advancing at a satisfactory pace, it is essential to actively engage Indonesian businessmen to look closely at India to further enhance bilateral commercial and economic ties.

Vietnam constitutes a significant trade, strategic and defense partner of India. Its significance in our outreach to the region has grown considerably on account of the growing assertiveness of China on the South China Sea issue with the latter having declared it as one of the core issues of its foreign policy.

The allocation of USD 1 billion to promote physical and digital connectivity between India and ASEAN, announced by PM Modi during his visit to Malaysia in Nov, 2015 will go a long way in bringing India and ASEAN closer together. Connectivity forms an indispensable element of the 3 Cs of ''culture, commerce and connectivity'' articulated by PM Modi. These will promote economic engagement as well as strengthen people to people, cultural and civilisational contacts between the two regions.

Relations with ASEAN have become multi-faceted to encompass security, connectivity, strategic, political, space technology, counter-terrorism and anti-insurgency operations, anti-radicalisation, trade and investment, maritime security and defence collaboration in addition to economic ties. Cooperation to curb terrorism especially in face of rising influence of Islamic State has assumed priority. Defence partnerships with several ASEAN states are advancing rapidly.

The large Indian diasporas in many Southeast Asian countries help strengthen diplomatic, economic and security relations between India and ASEAN as they contribute to expand and intensify bonds. The Indian diaspora comprises an important instrument of India’s soft power

India, ASEAN, and the Chinese Conundrum

ASEAN continues to form the central pillar of India’s Act East Policy. In a rapidly evolving geo-political scenario marked by assertive military, political and economic rise of China, AEP has imparted greater dynamism to India’s ties with ASEAN.

Issue of ownership, control, usage and exploitation of oil, gas, mineral and fisheries resources in the South China Sea has emerged as a major dispute between China and several Asean countries like Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. This is an issue that has divided ASEAN down the middle. There is no unanimity amongst them on how to deal with China on this issue. India is concerned because more than 40% of its trade passes through the South China Sea. It is also interested in harnessing fossil fuel resources in the region for meeting its energy needs. ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) entered into Agreement with Vietnam to prospect in oil blocks 127 and 128 off the Paracel islands which fall within the EEZ of Vietnam. In all recent discussions in regional and international fora, India along with several others have supported freedom of navigation, ensuring maritime security, expeditious resolution of disputes according to provisions of international law viz UN Convention on the Law of the Seas 1982, developing a Code of Conduct, and settlement of the dispute through dialogue and peaceful means.

PM Modi has made determined efforts to reach out to other countries in East Asia to get greater maneuverability and strategic space and provide an impetus to the several initiatives launched by the government for speedy economic development of the country like Make in India, Skill India, Digital India, promote energy security, create infrastructure, build smart cities etc. Simultaneously, these endeavours are designed to generate greater flexibility and political space to contend with the increasing assertiveness and unilateralist approach being pursued by China. China’s adversarial behavior is limited not only to its disinterestedness in settling the border dispute with India or ignoring India’s concerns and sensitivities while supplying nuclear and missile technology and material to Pakistan, or aggressively pursuing the construction of the USD 46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through Indian territory under illegal occupation of Pakistan, but extends to reluctance in discussing sharing of river waters, and issuing stapled visas to people from J & K etc.

China’s increasing intemperance and intractability over the last many years has added to the anxieties and concerns of countries in South East Asia and beyond. They would like India to play a more active countervailing role in the region. This interest and desire on the part of these countries meshes flawlessly with efforts by India to reach out pro-actively to countries of the region for mutually beneficial engagements.

Moving Towards a Free Trade Agreement

Negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement which commenced in 2012 are due to be concluded soon. This grouping which in addition to the ASEAN 10 includes China, Japan, ROK, Australia, New Zealand and India represents 45% of the world population, 40% of world trade and 33% (USD 27 trillion) of the world GDP. With the signature of the Trans Pacific Partnership(TPP) Agreement in Auckland, New Zealand on 4th Feb, 2016, it had become imperative for RCEP members also to urgently conclude negotiations for an ambitious, far-reaching, balanced and equitable deal. Future of TPP has become somewhat uncertain as US President Trump withdrew from the Agreement soon after assuming office. The remaining 11 countries have decided to revive TPP. Trump also seems to be entertaining second thoughts about exit from TPP and mulling over the idea to rejoin it. India needs to ensure that the final text of RCEP fully safeguards and promotes its interests unlike the India-ASEAN FTA in goods which resulted in increase in imports into India from this region while not helping it to enhance its exports. However, the India-ASEAN FTA in services and investment which was signed in 2014 and which is expected to come into force soon is expected to significantly enhance India's exports to this market because of the inherent strength of India in the services sector.

The India – Japan Partnership

India’s relations with Japan have seen a momentous upswing since the NDA government assumed power. Japan was the first bilateral visit undertaken by PM Modi outside the South Asia neighbourhood. Both Modi and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe were able to build on the close rapport developed by them during Modi’s tenures as Chief Minister of Gujarat. The visit resulted in a commitment to invest USD 35 billion by Japan in India over the next five years including in some flagship initiatives like smart cities, Delhi-Mumbai Industrial corridor, shinkansen bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmadabad, and several more. All these initiatives witnessed a pronounced push during the reciprocal visit by Abe to India in Dec, 2015 and subsequent visits to each other’s countries by the two leaders. The crowning achievement of Abe’s visit in 2015 was the decision to enter into a civilian nuclear deal with India, discussions on which have been going on for several years. Japan has been the last country to come on board on this issue as this is an extremely sensitive matter for it domestically since Japan is the only country to have suffered the destruction of two of its major cities – Hiroshima and Nagasaki on account of dropping of atom bombs on them in 1945. Bilateral ties continue to grow rapidly on an upward trajectory.

Engaging the Middle Powers – Australia and South Korea

The last three plus years have also witnessed a rapid escalation of ties between India and Australia. The then Australian Prime Minster Tony Abbott visited India in Sept, 2014, within a few months of coming to office of NDA government, and signed the civilian nuclear deal. Special significance of this deal emanates from the fact that Australia has the world’s largest reserves of uranium. This Agreement will prove to be immensely beneficial as India seeks to enhance its energy generation from nuclear reactors from the current 9,000 MW to 20,000 MW by 2022 and 62,000 MW by 2032. Modi paid a bilateral visit to Australia, the first by an Indian Prime Minster in 28 years, following his participation in the G-20 Meeting in Brisbane in Nov, 2014.

Modi used the opportunity of his visit to Canberra and Melbourne in Nov, 2014 to travel to Fiji and interact with the 12 leaders and representatives of the Pacific Island nations. This was the first visit by an Indian PM to Fiji in 33 years. This was followed by a Conference in India with 14 Pacific Island countries in August, 2015. Going forward, these contacts will stand India in good stead in providing it with critical support on issues of global concern and interest like reform and expansion of the UN Security Council, progress on India’s proposal for concluding a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism etc.

Modi also reached out to Mongolia, the first Indian PM ever to visit this friendly country situated in the North-West of China. India shares strong cultural, spiritual and historical ties with this nation. Presence of vast reserves of uranium and inking of a civilian nuclear deal adds further substance to this partnership.

Following his visit to China and Mongolia, Modi travelled to South Korea to further deepen bilateral commercial and economic partnership with this rapidly expanding economy. Discussions on upgrading the bilateral FTA in goods to a balanced and equitable Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement have been initiated.

India – U.S. Partnership in the Region

Relations between India and USA have progressed and grown over recent years. President Obama's visit to India as Chief Guest at its Republic Day in 2015 provided a strong impetus with issuance of a Joint Strategic Vision for Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region. This partnership was given a further fillip during the visit of US President Trump to the Region in November, 2017. His consistent use of the expression ''Indo-Pacific'' throughout his visit instead of the more commonly used ''Asia Pacific'' to signify that India is a significant player in the region and will need to be included in all discussions and decisions on peace and security of the region sent out a clear message about common position India and USA regarding developments in the region. It also signaled that USA and India will partner each other to promote a free and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. A meeting of the Quad (USA, Japan, Australia and India) at official level also gave strong indications of the interest of these countries to work together to ensure a free, open, inclusive and prosperous region.

The Commemorative Summit

The presence of all ten Heads of State/Government of Member countries of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in India for the Commemorative Summit on 25th January, 2018 to mark 25 years of dialogue partnership, 15 years of Summit partnership and 5 years of Strategic Partnership, and to be Guests of Honour at India’s Republic Day on 26th January, 2018 provided a huge boost to India’s prestige and profile in the region and beyond. The fact that all ten leaders accepted the invitation is testimony to the expanding clout of India in global affairs and the growing belief amongst Southeast Asian countries that India can play a significant, beneficial role in the region. The detailed, comprehensive and ambitious 36-para Delhi Declaration (DD) issued at the end of the Commemorative Summit is confirmation of the huge potential that exists in enhancing bilateral cooperation between India and ASEAN nations. Coming on the heels of India’s deepening ties with USA, Japan, Europe and other major powers, the visit of leaders of ASEAN nations has underlined the salience and relevance of India’s Act East Policy.

Republic Day Parade

The event was not only pomp and show, whistles and spectacle. The images of colourful cultural tableaux from different Indian States and organizations as well as display of the state of the art military hardware will of course remain vivid in the memories of the visiting ASEAN leaders. A smart move by India was to select one individual each from the ten ASEAN nations for award of Padma Shri for their work in strengthening relations between India and those countries. This will significantly promote people-to-people ties and encourage others to follow the path these eminent individuals have traversed to strengthen relations between India and ASEAN. The display of all ten flags of ASEAN countries in the march-past would also have sent out a message of friendship and cooperation to all the visiting leaders. Inclusion of the ASEAN flag along with flags of India and of the 3 services in the fly-past would have gratified the people in ASEAN nations sending out a clear message that India is keen to enhance its engagement with these countries.

The Delhi Declaration

Even more significant than the pomp and show of the Parade were the substantive discussions between leaders during the Commemorative Summit and Retreat on 25th January at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Several significant elements are covered in the Delhi Declaration that was issued after the Summit. The Declaration is noteworthy not only for its extensive coverage but also for focusing on the huge potential that exists in taking the relationship to a higher level.

One of the most notable aspects is that the Declaration does not shy away from squarely focusing on the issue of conflict in the South China Sea (SCS). This has emerged as a divisive issue within ASEAN over the last many years as China has been able to divide the Organisation down the middle by providing lucrative offers to some countries like Cambodia and Laos who have not hesitated to articulate the Chinese position when discussions on this vital subject are held. This was the reason that the ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting in Phnom Penh in 2012 was for the first time not able to adopt a Declaration because of the widely differing positions on this issue. The Delhi Declaration on this subject reads as flows:

"6. Reaffirm the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, stability, maritime safety and security, freedom of navigation and overflight in the region, and other lawful uses of the seas and unimpeded lawful maritime commerce and to promote peaceful resolutions of disputes, in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the relevant standards and recommended practices by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO). In this regard, we support the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and look forward to an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).”

All issues of concern to the ASEAN countries and India including respect for international law, primacy of UNCLOS 1982, freedom of navigation and overflights in the region, peaceful resolution of disputes etc have been mentioned upfront in the Declaration. This is evidence of the strong interest and desire that ASEAN has in India’s greater engagement with the region. Reference has also been made to "an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.” China has been keen to deal on SCS with ASEAN countries on a bilateral basis. It has also not recognized the role of countries like USA, India etc who are not part of the region. It is a well recognized fact that the speed with which China has been able to reclaim, occupy, build and militarize many of the shoals and islands in SCS has left the ASEAN stunned, numb, befuddled and helpless. They are keen to enhance understanding with their strategic partners so that they can evolve a balanced and reasonable COC in SCS. It is noteworthy that the language used in DD is quite similar to the language adopted in the US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region issued during the visit of US President Barack Obama to India as Chief Guest for India’s Republic Day in January, 2015. ASEAN is aware that India by itself cannot be a balancer to China, not only on account of the wide disparity between India and China in economic and military terms but also because of the proximate location of China in the region. Economic engagement of ASEAN with China is of a much higher order ie annual bilateral trade of US$ 470 billion with China as compared to US$ 70 billion with India, which they would not like to put in jeopardy. ASEAN nations would hope that USA can again be got more actively interested and engaged in ASEAN affairs so that they would be on a stronger footing when dealing with China on these critical issues.

Emphasis on expanding trade between India and ASEAN is another significant element covered in DD. Bilateral trade between the two regions has shown satisfactory growth of 25 times over twenty five years since the dialogue partnership was launched in 1992. This is however much below potential. It would be to the economic and strategic advantage of both India and ASEAN if these ties are upgraded quickly. India-ASEAN FTA in goods has not been beneficial to India. It has expanded the trade deficit between the two. A few ASEAN countries are still to ratify the FTA on Investment and Services between India and ASEAN. Negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which commenced in 2012 have been stalled for the last 2-3 years although 20 negotiating meetings have been held. Formulation on RCEP reads as follows:

"Intensify efforts in 2018 toward the swift conclusion of a modern, comprehensive, high quality, and mutually beneficial Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP.”

India is being blamed for dragging its feet on moving forward on this issue. India’s concerns are two-fold. One that entering into this Agreement will throw it open to uncontrolled imports of low quality, low priced Chinese goods which would be detrimental to its own industry. Secondly, it has not been able to receive any meaningful offers from other participants in the area of trade in services in which it enjoys a comparative advantage. India is keen on a balanced, fair and equitable outcome. India however needs to rethink its negotiating strategy so that these negotiations are concluded without further loss of time. The issue has assumed even greater urgency because it is becoming clear that TPP-11 (Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement without USA) might get implemented in the coming months. India is not a member of TPP. Its exports would be adversely affected if RCEP countries decide to move on without India because of the delays in concluding the negotiations.

The Declaration emphasizes the "centrality” of ASEAN in all evolving Institutions and deliberations. This is considered vital by the ASEAN nations. India does not let go of any opportunity to reiterate this position. In fact this is important for both India and ASEAN as neither of them would like the evolving architecture to be dominated by a powerful country like China or USA.

Connectivity finds an important mention in the document. The Declaration exhorts the early completion of the Trilateral Highway from Northeast India via Myanmar to Thailand. India should ensure that this is completed and operationalised by next year as PM Modi has announced. The Kaladan project has not been mentioned. This notwithstanding, India should spare no effort in completing it expeditiously. This project passes through Rakhine province in Myanmar from where the Rohingyas have fled to Bangladesh and elsewhere. Kaladan is expected to have positive socio-economic benefits for people living in the region.

The Declaration has dealt in detail with several other issues of interest and concern to both India and ASEAN including counter-terrorism, radicalization, cyber-security, maritime and air transport, ICT, MSMEs, food and energy security, S&T, space, promotion of historical and civilisational links, women empowerment, health, tourism, youth, education, culture, climate change and environment, hu8manitarian assistance, capacity development, biodiversity management, and many more.

Issues relating to defence cooperation have not been mentioned in the Declaration. It can be safely presumed that these would have received full consideration during the bilateral meetings that Prime Minister Modi had with all the visiting leaders. Defence can emerge as an important area of collaboration between India and several ASEAN countries including Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Thailand etc. Involvement of individual ASEAN countries in the informal, official level consultations amongst the ‘’Quad’’ nations (USA, India, Japan, Australia) which were initiated in Manila on the sidelines of EAS in November, 2017 could also have come up for discussions between India and some ASEAN leaders.


India and ASEAN account for about 30% of the global population (i.e. 1.85 billion people) and a combined GDP of approximately USD 5.4 trillion. Together they would form the third largest economy in the world. Given their combined clout, it is but natural for them to expand their areas of collaboration particularly in view of rapidly changing and uncertain global and regional scenario. Originally conceived as an economic initiative in 1992, this engagement has evolved in terms of geographical expanse and sectoral reach across the three pillars of politico-security, economic and socio-cultural cooperation. Besides geographical proximity, historical commonalities, cultural affinities and commercial interests, India's AEP has been driven by geo-strategic concerns.

Promotion of India’s geostrategic interests in the Indo-Pacific region depends on India’s bilateral and multilateral/regional engagements with the countries in the region. It is hence essential to strengthen collaboration with ASEAN as an organisation as well as with individual Southeast Asian countries.

Despite progress made over the last 25 years in India-ASEAN ties, there remains immense scope for further growth in the relationship. This is one of the most dynamic regions of the world today, and it is necessary for both India and ASEAN to actively collaborate to shape the so-called ‘Asian century’. Stronger partnership and enhanced cooperation should be prioritised by both sides if full potential of this engagement is to be realised.

India's Act East Policy must continue to focus on further strengthening collaboration with ASEAN nations. Partnerships must look to promote economic revival through implementation of India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement in Services and Investment, and promoting strategic cooperation to fight terrorism, freedom of navigation, maritime security and defense cooperation. In addition, Prime Minister Modi’s use of soft power such as Buddhism, tourism, people to people contacts, and cultural ties with the region must also be harnessed.

The Act East Policy must look to improve Indian connectivity with ASEAN, particularly between North East India and Myanmar via the Trilateral Highway and Kaladan Multi-modal Trade Transit Project, BIMSTEC etc to promote peace and prosperity in the North-East region.

Moreover beyond ASEAN, India must work to strengthen ties with East Asia particularly Japan as also with Republic of Korea and Australia, both in strategic and economic areas. Technology transfer, civilian nuclear cooperation, defence, innovation are all important sectors which need to be targeted.

Lastly, on China, continuous engagement is necessary to expand cooperation, particularly on the economic front. With India being the second largest shareholder of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and an equal partner in the New Development Bank, the forthcoming decades must ensure that areas of conflict are minimized and economic integration for benefit of both nations fully leveraged.