Advancing India’s ‘Act East’ policy and its Indo-Pacific outlook, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Thailand for ASEAN related summits. Prime Minister Modi attended the 16th India-ASEAN Summit, 14th East Asia Summit (EAS) and the 3rd RCEP Summit in addition to a series of bilateral meetings with strategic partners on the side-lines. Earlier, External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar participated in a series of ASEAN related ministerial meetings in August in Bangkok.
At the 16th India-ASEAN Summit, Prime Minister Modi articulated the mutuality of interests in securing a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific order. He underscored the convergence with respect to common principles such as ASEAN centrality in India and ASEAN’s approach to Indo-Pacific and called for buttressing maritime cooperation, physical and digital connectivity, blue economy and humanitarian aid. India is focussed on capacity building in areas such as agriculture, science, research, ICT and engineering. India has a US $ 1 billion Line of Credit (LoC) for connectivity projects in ASEAN and is identifying projects and discussing modalities for using of the LoC. Earlier, India and ASEAN agreed to initiate a review of the bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) to address trade balance concerns.
The Indian Prime Minister also participated in the East Asia Summit. As a founding member of the EAS, India demonstrated its commitment together with other members in strengthening this regional forum aimed at facilitating strategic cooperation on common concerns including maritime security, terrorism, non-proliferation and irregular migration. The leaders noted progress in keeping with the ‘Manila Plan of Action’ to Advance the Phnom Penh Declaration on EAS Development Initiative (2018-2022). Three documents on combating illicit drugs and transnational crimes, and forging partnerships for sustainability were adopted at the EAS.
One of the primary focus of this year’s ASEAN summit revolved around the status of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations, a 16-nation mega-FTA estimated to generate 32 percent of global GDP. However, the RCEP negotiation has navigated fragmentation within, leading to an evolving discourse among stakeholders to conclude RCEP minus India or pursue RCEP within the ASEAN+3 framework. India for its part argued for promoting constructive free trade in Asia-Pacific region and specially called for liberalisation of the services sector and addressing sustainable trade deficits concerns.
At the RCEP Summit, even though rest of the 15 members confirmed concluding text-based negotiations for all 20 chapters and all market access issues, India has expressed reservations on unresolved ‘outstanding’ issues. There are a few differences including securing more market access, concerns over non-tariff barriers, possible disregard of rules of origin, and base year that would be used to reduce the tariffs on the products. India has decided not to join the agreement on the grounds of ‘fairness and balance’. Prime Minister Modi stressed that his decision is guided by the ‘adverse impact it would have on the lives of all Indians, specially the vulnerable sections of the society’.
While in Thailand Prime Minister Modi also pursued India’s strategic interests in a series of bilateral meetings with Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Myanmar and furthered India’s multi-dimensional relationship with South-east and East Asia.
Officials from India-US-Japan-Australia met on the side-lines to bolster cooperation on connectivity and infrastructure development, and security matters, including counter terrorism, cyber and maritime security.
Southeast Asia lies at the heart of India’s Act East Policy. Centrality of ASEAN was demonstrated as India hosted ten Heads of States from South-east Asian nations as Chief Guests for India’s 69th Republic Day celebrations in 2018, to commemorate 25 years of India’s multifaceted partnership with ASEAN. India’s strategic engagement with South East Asia is based on 3C’s—Commerce, Connectivity and Culture. India will continue to invest in ASEAN with the goal of elevating the ASEAN-India Strategic Partnership to newer heights.
Script: Dr. Titli Basu, Strategic Analyst on East & South East Asia