Indo-ASEAN ties have entered 25 years of dialogue

NewsBharati    12-Apr-2018   
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The countries around the South China Sea had made a number of attempts to form an intergovernmental platform where countries around the region could come together on principles of Pan-Asianinsm addressing common goals of security, economy and strategic interests. One predominant driving force behind this longing was the fear of communism and a antagonist china, there had been various instances in the past when China had border disputes with a number of current ASEAN member countries. It was this fear that saw the formation of SEATO or Southeast Asia Treaty Organization in early September 1954 through the Manila pact, where the motive was to form a strong anti-communist alliance to contain communist powers like China. Though SEATO had successfully established itself as a formal institution by 1955 yet it failed at various instances to deliver its purpose and was ultimately dissolved in the late 70’s. Apart from SEATO, another significant attempt of uniting under the principles of Pan-Asianism can be seen in the formation of Association of Southeast Asia (ASA) during the early 60’s and is termed as a predecessor of ASEAN. Successively ASEAN was formally conceived on 8th August 1967 with five countries from the region signing a pact in Bangkok namely Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia. In the following years, other countries like Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Brunei Darussalam joined in as member countries while two more countries namely Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste joined as observers in the Intergovernmental organization. The signing of a charter in Jakarta on 15th December 2008 gave ASEAN a legal entity making it a cohesive entity for mutual cooperation. The inclusive GDP of $ 2.9 trillion makes ASEAN the sixth largest economy in the world with a population of 640 million people and making it a large conglomerate around a major sea trade route. Such a stratagem combination has made ASEAN a very important entity in respect to trade interests as well as strategic interests of global powers. 
The Indo-ASEAN ties have recently entered 25 years of dialogue. As we look back to our shared heritage and our socio-cultural affinities the inherent oneness becomes readily visible. The binding force between ASEAN and India is of cultural oneness as Rama remains a hero in popular Indian culture, so thus Rama remains an Icon in most of the ASEAN countries. From Kakawin Ramayana of Indonesia to Ramakein in Thailand and to the Burmese version of Ramayana known as Yama Zatdaw to Angkor Wat in Cambodia depicting the Battle of Lanka, India and ASEAN nations remain culturally cohesive. Even the old capital of Thailand established in 1347 was named Ayutthaya after Rama's Birthplace Ayodhya and still stands out as a perfect example of shared cultures that evolved within a time span of thousands of years with very little or almost nil military conquests. Hence the affinity that ASEAN nations share with India is beyond any treaties or pacts. Although in the initial years of ASEAN's formation southeast Asian nations remained reluctant of proceeding with concrete ties with India owing to the latter’s decision of Not siding with either the Capitalists nor Communists block and also later signing of the Indo-soviet treaty in 1971, but with some serious efforts undertaken by senior Indian ministers with regular visits to ASEAN nations broke the ice and paved the rather stagnant ties into an era of dynamic partnerships. Chartering of the Look East policy in 1991 India opened up new avenues for mutual co-operation breaking the logjam and by the end of 1995, India became a full ASEAN dialogue partner followed by India being made a member at the ASEAN led ARF (ASEAN REGIONAL FORUM ).Elevation of India into a summit partner in 2002, signing of the comprehensive economic cooperation Agreement (CECA) in 2003 and establishment of the ASEAN-INDIA economic linkages task force(AIELTF) were few other important undertakings that boosted multilateral cooperation between the two emerging global powers. The importance of INDO-ASEAN ties can be made out from the fact that ASEAN-INDIA represents around one-third of the world’s population and also jointly stands as the third-biggest economy. In 2014 with the appointment of a designated ambassador to ASEAN Secretariat India’s ability of decision making and establishing its interests in the region got a significant boost and India established itself as the fourth largest trading partner of ASEAN in 2015.
While the Indo-ASEAN trade value stands at $76 billion, the China-ASEAN trade stands at a staggering $452 billion which is almost six times that of India. Chinese investment in ASEAN reached around $3 billion while the Indian Investments remain marginalized in comparison at around $ 224 million for the same period of 2015-16. To overcome this Gap, India under the leadership of Narendra Modi had announced a credit Line Facility of $ 1 Billion to ASEAN countries under the newly structured Act East Policy. The announcements were made during the lastly held India-ASEAN summit 2015 organized in Malaysia with a view to decrease the dependency of ASEAN countries on China and to bolster connectivity in ASEAN nations ushering them into a new era of Globalization. But this ambitious Undertaking under Act East Policy hadn’t received any takers even after three years of its announcement as ASEAN countries have raised their reservations on the terms for availing this credit facility and lastly it also remains unattractive as the issues of technology transfer are not addressed properly in comparison to China that offers a more attractive deal with a guarantee of modern technology transfer. If the words of a former Indian diplomat were to be heeded, the $ 1 Billion credit line announced by India towards improving both physical and digital connectivity in the region hadn’t received many takers as neither of the prospective countries had the technical capacity to draft a Detailed project report nor is the EXIM bank of India responsible for releasing the funds had been successful in chunking out all the technicalities necessary for smoother execution of the process. As per procedures defined, the EXIM bank requires having an empanelled telecom consultant in its committee to prepare a detailed project report for projects requested by foreign nations. So far, it only had Infrastructure consultants on the panels as it had mostly dealt with projects of an infrastructural kind. The department of Telecom (DOT) and Telecom equipment’s and services export promotion council (TEPC) the lead agencies from the Indian side are now working closely with EXIM bank officials to finalize the appointment of a telecom consultant. As a significant boost to the credit line facility, Indian Government in January 2018 announced another grant in aid of $40 million for pilot projects in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam or the CLMV countries, the aim of this grant was to kick-start the credit line Facility. A major challenge in progressing with a project within the vicinity of the credit line is issuance of a Sovereign Guarantee that the prospecting country has to offer, but as the telecom sector in the ASEAN countries are predominantly in the hands of private sector no government is willing to provide a Sovereign Guarantee for a loan given by India to a private party. Even Laos though being very forthcoming has also communicated that at best it could issues a letter of comfort as the proposal forwarded by Laos is still under consideration by New Delhi. Experts have stated that while the cumbersome and bureaucratic ways of EXIM bank in India had made the Credit line unattractive, so have the lengthy and cumbersome foreign investment policies in these countries made its implementation sluggish. In a another significant move to enhance the communication and navigation capabilities of ASEAN countries, India had offered access to its Indigenous satellite navigation system GAGAN or GPS aided Geo Augmented Navigation in 2015 , but response of ASEAN countries so far hadn’t been very encouraging in comparison to the enthusiasm that India had showered on its ASEAN Allies.   

The Former Telecom Secretary of India and the current chairmen of TEPC stated that the $40 million grant in aid for pilot projects would facilitate taking up of projects in the line of credit”


There are three major cooperation funds that India is currently extending to ASEAN apart from the credit line and other bilateral aids which are namely: 
  1. ASEAN-INDIA FUND of 2009
  3. ASEAN-INDIA SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY FUND (ASTDF) of 2007 and all of these are channelled through the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta. The ASEAN India green fund was established in 2007 with a corpus of $5 million an out of which project worth $1.97 million had been approved so far, whereas the ASTDF also started in the year 2007 with a corpus of $1 million got operational only in 2009 and incurred it first expenditure in the year 2011. Owing to its immense potential of opening new avenues in the sector of science and technology, India under the leadership of PM Narendra Modi enhanced the fund with another $ 5 million. Apart from these two funds, EAM (External Affairs Ministry) records show the ASEAN-INDIA FUND to have the most successful implementation so far. Started in the year of 2009 with a corpus of $50 million it had so far seen approvals worth $48 million and are in various stages of their implementation. In the year 2016, the ASEAN-INDIA FUND received a significant boost with PM Modi enhancing it with another $50 million. From the Look East policy to the Act East Policy INDO-ASEAN ties have transcended beyond trade ties, from conducting joint military exercises to the signing of Defense cooperation agreements, India has stepped up its efforts in every aspect. The India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and the Kaladan multi-modal transit transport project are two very strategically important undertakings that will significantly boost India’s connectivity to the rest of South East Asia and also develop its Northeastern states in the process. The –Kaladan project, in particular, will help shorten the distance between Kolkata and various northeastern states giving an Intra-national as well as international trade boost. Implementation of the Kaladan project will also decrease India’s dependency on Siliguri corridor and reinforce its strategic relations with Myanmar executing an effective counter for China’s string of pearls gambit. Emphasizing on the spirit of our shared heritage, inherent oneness and Indo-Asianism both the powers can usher into a new era of dynamic prosperity and thus bolstering world peace.