Reviving the Spice Route will take India-Asean ties a long distance

Tags: Opinion
The South-east Asian region was once India’s traditional area of influence, but following independence, a turbulent neighbourhood, cold war dynamics and Myanmar’s (then Burma) self-isolation cut us off from the region. Since 1991, when India launched its ‘Look East’ policy, it has been seeking to expand its trade and contact with the Asean. Two decades later, India is hosting an India-Asean commemorative summit where ten Asean leaders will be present.

The past 20 years have seen a slow but steady progress in India-Asean ties. In the early years, India moved cautiously as not all Asean members welcomed its overtures, but in the past half decade or so, New Delhi has been somewhat charged up in its interaction with the Asean. The commemorative summit would signal India’s commitment to forging closer ties with the region. A vision document to be unveiled by the leaders at the summit is expected to set the direction for strategic partnership.

The Asean itself is facing new pressures created by strains within the organisation. While China is a major trading partner for the Asean countries, its growing assertiveness over the South China Sea is a matter of concern. However, the Asean has been unable to devise a collective response to the problem. As the American pivot to Asia unfolds during president Barack Obama’s second term, regional security issues will appear centrestage in the region. Asean and India have shared similar views on regional security, but a changing environment may bring fresh challenges.

Prime minister Manmohan Singh has made India’s ‘Look East’ policy a priority, but New Delhi still faces the challenge of translating its intent into a policy that actually delivers. India has indicated its readiness to participate in the negotiations for a regional comprehensive partnership among the Asean countries and its economic partners. Prime minister Singh called it a “giant step towards creating an economic community in the region” that would be a useful platform for enhancing cooperation and discussing regional security issues.

The regional economic partnership would include the ten Asean countries of Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Lao PDR and Brunei, with its dialogue partners, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India, bringing together half of the world’s population and about 30 per cent of global GDP. At a time when western economies are contracting and the Asian economies are still showing high growth rates, a regional partnership in Asia shows great potential for the region.

India and the Asean had tortuous negotiations over a trade in goods agreement that was finally concluded in 2009 and was implemented with all the Asean countries by 2010. Its impact is already visible with trade going up by 37 per cent to $79 billion in 2012. A trade in services agreement expected to reach conclusion should take two-way trade to $100 billion by 2015. Since 2000, there has been a large outflow of investment from India, with almost $24 billion of Indian foreign investment going to the Asean countries, while the Asean member states have invested $18 billion in India.

While trade and inter-governmental contacts have been increasing, they have not been matched by contact between the peoples of the region. Indians travel to Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur for business and leisure, but the Asean as a regional entity does not hold a place in the Indian imagination like some other regions of the world do, even though the Asean is India’s fourth largest trade partner and almost 3 million Indians travel to these countries every year.

The commemorative summit will emphasise on connectivity and economic cooperation, especially connectivity through air, road and sea that would increase contact between the peoples in the region. A car rally through the Asean countries to India was to highlight the possibility of a “seamless land route” connecting India and the Asean region. The Indian Navy’s sailing ship, INS Sudarshini’s voyage to the Asean ports aimed to follow the old spice route that had linked the region for centuries. Both were meant to emphasise the geographical proximity, cultural affinity and ancient links between them that would go a long distance to enhance the India-Asean partnership.

(The writer is a foreign affairs commentator)

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