India – ASEAN Relations



Geographically South-East Asian states are nearer to India, but politically both the entities came closer only after the bipolar structure of the Cold War era world collapsed.

ASEAN’s pro-western orientation during its establishment (1962) led India to wonder about organization’s true purpose, esp. in the context of British decision to withdraw from the east of Suez and uncertain US position towards Indo-China. Despite being said that India was offered membership of ASEAN, it’s doubtful if it would have materialized in the context of Indonesia’s apprehensions to admit a country bigger than itself, opposition of Pro-US Thailand and Philippines to a Non-Aligned India, India’s strong anti-China feeling and predominance of Chinese origin population in the region. India’s Peace and Friendship Treaty with Russia and decision to recognize the Heng Samrin regime in Kampuchea backed by Viet Nam, cold war structure distanced India and ASEAN. Pakistan’s joining of SEATO (South East Asian Treaty Organization) and CENTO/Baghdad Pact (Central Treaty Organization) too raised apprehensions of India about the objectives of South-East Asian states.


Political engagement

India and ASEAN Countries

In the early nineties, when cold war imposed restrictions ended and India too began exploring economic opportunities after adopting liberalization model, then looking at East was obvious choice as scope in other directions was limited, and in the East apart from hostile China, South-East Asia was the closest neighbor. India’s adoption of New Economic Policy led by economic reforms as well as Look East Policy attracted India and ASEAN towards each other, guided by the economic opportunities from each other. The progress in relations since then has been swift and incremental led by increasing confidence about each other. It can be seen as follows –

  • Sectoral dialogue partner status to India in January 1992,
  • Full dialogue partner of ASEAN in 1995,
  • Admission to the ARF in 1996,
  • Summit-level partner of ASEAN from 2002,
  • Founding member of East Asian Summit (EAS) from 2005,
  • Member of the Asia Europe Meeting (ASEM) since 2006,
  • ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity Agreement in 2004,
  • India’s engagement with ASEAN members has been at multiple levels of bilateral, sub-regional (BIMSTEC, MGC) and regional level.


Economic Co-operation

ASEAN India Car Rally Map

Trade Agreements

  • India-ASEAN CECA in 2003,
  • India-ASEAN FTA in Goods in 2009,
  • India-ASEAN FTA in Services and Investment in 2014.
  • Broader RCEP is under negotiations.

At present, the trade balance through FTAs is in favour of ASEAN states. South-east Asian states are strong in light engineering, electronics, palm, rubber, spices, etc. With the signing of FTA in Services and Investment bilateral trade may become more balanced.

Stats of trade

  • The total trade between ASEAN and India stood at US$ 67.9 billion in 2013. In 2012, the Leaders set the target of US$ 100 billion by 2015 for ASEAN-India trade.
  • ASEAN-India Aviation Cooperation Framework signed in 2008.
  • India–Myanmar–Thailand Trilateral Highway Project and its extension to Laos and Cambodia is one of current proposed projects to achieve greater ASEAN-India physical connectivity. The project is planned to connect the ASEAN Highway Network with the highway system in eastern India.
  • In tourism, the number of visitor arrivals from India to ASEAN in 2012 was 2.84 million.
  • Singapore is the largest source of FDI in India.
  • Co-operation in oil and gas sector is underway, in Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, etc. Indonesia is world’s largest exporter of LNG.
  • India is a major builder of railway lines in the South-East Asian states.


Security co-operation

The mutual security concern of India and ASEAN is guided by two broad factors: reconciling US military supremacy in the Asia-Pacific and balancing China’s ascendancy in the region.

While the economic partnership is growing steadily, defence co-operation has accelerated to the point of signing a strategic partnership agreement. Beginning with bilateral military initiatives and then through the membership of the Asian Regional Forum (ARF) and  multilateral military exercises like MILAN, India has succeeded in gaining the security confidence of the South-East Asian states. By 1995 the Indian-sponsored multilateral naval exercise, MILAN, had engaged the key Malacca littoral states (Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore) in the Andaman Sea. The regular deployment of the Indian Navy into the South China Sea since 2000 and its acceptance by South-East Asian states denotes the confidence of the South-East Asian states.

Bilateral security co-operation

India has also entered into bilateral defence pacts with most of the South-East Asian states facilitating the sale of technology, training personnel and joint military exercises. In fact, the degree of India’s military co-operation is greater with the ASEAN states than with its immediate neighbours in South Asia.

Singapore – The bilateral Defence Co-operation Agreement was signed between India and Singapore in 1998. SIMBEX naval exercise is annual feature in bilateral defence relations. India-Singapore bilateral naval intercourse spans a wide range of operations that include search and rescue operation drills, antisubmarine warfare tactics, counter-mining exercises, inter-operability of forces, anti-terrorism measures and exchange of naval information on such threats as piracy, poaching, etc.

Significant co-operation also goes on between Army and Air forces of both nations. Singapore is the only ASEAN state that is engaging with Indian tri-services. The tiny city-state of Singapore, strategically located at the cross roads of the South-East Asian and Asia-Pacific regions, has become the ideal springboard for India.

Indonesia – A bilateral Defence Co-operation Agreement was signed between India and Indonesia in 2007. Among other factors, Indonesia’s latest security initiatives are guided by concern over China’s ascendancy in the South-East Asian region and China’s expanding military co-operation with the military regime in Myanmar.

Malaysia – In 1992 the Malaysia-India Defence Committee was set up.

Myanmar – India and the Myanmar Government had co-operated to conduct two counter-insurgency offensives, Operation Leech and Operation Golden Duck, to fight militant groups and their networks along the India–Myanmar border. In 2015, India conducted a significant retaliatory commando strike on Naga insurgents (NSCN-K) in Myanmar, with tacit support of Myanmar.

Anti-terrorism – India’s role in combating non-conventional security threats to the ASEAN states is well recognized, although this mutually beneficial relationship is more evident at the bilateral level than at the multilateral level. Joint Declaration with ASEAN was signed in 2003 for Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism.

The China factor – With rapidly growing economic power, Chinese economic and political presence in South-East Asian states is becoming extensive. China has already become number one trading partner of most of these nations grabbing alarming trade shares as much as 30-50% of each countries bilateral trade. With such a dominant economic presence, the allegations of political interference in internal affairs of countries such as Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and even in the affairs of ASEAN are consequent. For instance, for the first time in its history of 50 years, ASEAN did not release a joint communique at the end of its annual summit in 2012, due to alleged pressure of China over the host Cambodia, for the fears of reference to South China Sea issues. But the most significant is aggressive Chinese claims over South China Sea waters and islands so as put Chinese claim over the natural resources and sea-air lanes of communication over South China Sea. Countries such as Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei have traditionally held these territories as their own and some of it as Open Seas. The small S-E Asian states do not have the heft to oppose mightier China and ironically they have become dependent over the same China for their trade.

South-East Asian States have stopped short of openly asking India to counter growing Chinese influence in South-East Asia and its littoral waters, though the intention is visible to everyone. Also even as India too has explicitly refuted the idea of becoming a counterbalancing power vis-à-vis China, it did not seem to be averse to the idea of using South-East Asian worries to advance its political and strategic interests in the region. In this way, the partnership between India and ASEAN seems natural enough, caused by prevailing conditions. Many bilateral strategic partnerships of individual South-East Asian states such as Vietnam-India relations are driven more by perceived Chinese threat than pure bilateral benefits from India.

USA as resident global power – Such a perception also brings India and the USA together to check China’s rapid rise in South-East Asia. Both the USA and India also agree on a number of other strategic objectives that include combating terrorism and piracy, protection of the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs), anti-drugs drives, safety of energy and mercantile transportation, etc. A significant feature on security co-operation is India sponsored Exercise Malabar (since 1992) which has now become a permanently trilateral naval exercise between India, US, and Japan since 2015. Australia and Singapore too participated in 2007. Exercise Malabar is held every year alternately between Indian Ocean and Western Pacific Ocean. AUSINDEX is new India-Australia naval exercise started in 2015.

The growing formations of multilaterals such as US-India-Japan trilateral centred around the South-East Asia is a significant phenomenon. The US itself re-oriented its strategy focussing on Asia-Pacific pivot. South-East Asian states have become focal point of this pivot, much the same way Eastern Europe became the focus of European powers before World War-II. In 21st century, the physical war seems less likely, but tensions between the states broods on.

But the manner in which India is building strong partnerships, individually and collectively with the non-ASEAN powers such as the USA, Japan and Australia, may cast a shadow over India-ASEAN relations in the future. Australia-India-USA-Japan quadrilateral grouping formed in 2007 during Exercise Malabar could constitute an outer ring around the ASEAN security framework, although such a forum has yet to design its form and content. Whether such non-ASEAN groups will in future complement the ASEAN or override its regional identity will also influence India’s relations with ASEAN. ASEAN has always insisted on remaining in the driver’s seat in both the ARF and the EAS.

India’s bilateral and multilateral engagement with the ASEAN states essentially is a function of her wider strategic objectives in South-East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region. Through a prudent and subtle assimilation of political, economic and military tactics, which avoids a direct anti- China alliance, axis or coalition, India is consolidating her position in the South-East Asian and Asia-Pacific region as a countervailing or ‘balancing’ power to China.

It may be put candidly that India still lags far behind China and the USA in terms of geopolitical and economic importance in the South-East Asian region. India does not even feature in the routine economic and security discourse of many of these countries. But as in present times the world sees India in terms of its potential in future, as a potential great power, the ASEAN too has hopes from India in future. Navigating the burden of these hopes would a hard diplomatic manoeuvre for India.


Quote – Unquote

  • Manmohan Singh – “The ASEAN region is synonymous with dynamic economic growth […] India’s engagement with the ASEAN is at the heart of our Look East Policy. We are convinced that India’s future and our economic interests are best served by greater integration with our Asian partners in ASEAN.”
  • Mahathir bin Mohammad confidently declared that Malaysia did not feel threatened in any way by India.
  • Lee Kuan Yew delicately put it, “To keep the center in ASEAN, India would be a useful balance to China’s heft”.
  • ASEAN formally  recognizes the strategic role of the United States in “sustaining Southeast Asia’s rapid economic growth and maintaining peace and stability.”

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