On 4 August 2022, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar attended the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, amidst the increasing tension between the United States and China, following Nancy Pelosi’s visit to China.
This year marks India’s 30 years of engagement with the ASEAN, a group of ten South-East Asian countries. India’s first engagement with them started in 1992 and 30 years down the line, Delhi has increased its influence in the ASEAN by engaging on the concerns of not just connectivity but also security. India has elevated its status from Sectoral Partner to Dialogue Partner to Summit Level Partner. Currently, India has more than 30 mechanisms to engage with the ASEAN.
The ASEAN attracts a vital part of the energy and funding invested through the Act East policy. At the 12th Delhi Dialogue, held in June and serving as the primary Track 1.5 platform for India-ASEAN engagement, all agreed that India’s attempts to acquire a significant stake in the area through infrastructure projects would help explore the
India has unleashed multiple projects to increase connectivity in the ASEAN region in various ways. Foremost among them is transport. India is developing the Kaladan Multimodal Project to connect with its North-East region through Myanmar via a sea route bypassing the Siliguri Corridor, often referred to as the chicken neck. In addition, the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway is being constructed to boost the infrastructure in North-East India and the ASEAN region. Fusing technology and digitalisation with connectivity will further expand the influence India possesses in the Indo-Pacific region.
With existing cultural connections, building people-to-people connection is also ongoing. It has been recently declared that more than 1,000 ASEAN students will be provided fellowships in Indian institutions. Indian parliamentarians’ delegations and ASEAN media personnel are already visiting each other’s countries as a part of various programmes. In October 2021, India declared its support for establishing the ASEAN Cultural Heritage List. Regarding trade, India and these South-East Asian countries have made a total trade of $100-odd billion in the last financial year.
Hitherto, India has been having relations with the ASEAN countries due to its primary focus on connectivity and trade. Still, things have been changing recently with a focus on defence and security. India has already been a partner in ADMM Plus (ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting Plus, a platform of 10 ASEAN countries and eight other countries). Two months back, in New Delhi, during the India-ASEAN foreign ministerial meeting, it was agreed to work towards a comprehensive strategic partnership, and security was explicitly mentioned.
“To enhance cooperation in the field of Defense through the ADMM-Plus and welcome the proposed ASEAN-India Defence Ministers Informal Meeting in November 2022 and the proposed ASEAN-India Maritime Exercise,” the joint declaration noted. “The meeting also looked forward to convening the Field Training Exercise of the ADMM-Plus Experts’ Working Group on HADR in Indonesia in 2023. The meeting also welcomed ASEAN-India cooperation in preventing and countering terrorism, the rise of radicalisation and violent extremism, and combating transnational crimes.”
India’s engagement with the ASEAN countries is necessary when China wants to aggressively increase its dominance in the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. In 2019, India also launched the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), intended to make a secure, stable, sustainable and prosperous maritime domain for which the ASEAN nations are reliable partners.
India is taking steps in the right direction with increasing influence over the region, by increasing solidarity, pushing connectivity initiatives and now defence co-operations. The yielding of the measures will shortly be seen in an upcoming joint exercise.
Harshil Mehta is an analyst who writes on international relations, diplomacy, and national issues. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.