Republic Day takes India-ASEAN relations to a new high

India and ASEAN states have relations free from contests and claims, with a common vision for the future, belief in sovereign equality and support for free and open pathways of commerce and engagement, reads PM Shri Narendra Modi’s op-ed published across 27 newspapers in 10 languages in 10 ASEAN countries on January 27th

January 27, 2018

The presence of all 10 ASEAN leaders at the 2018 Republic Day parade signifies the growing importance that India attaches to its extended neighbourhood in Southeast Asia as the fulcrum of its diplomatic policy

A day before the Republic Day event, which is held annually on January 26th, India had hosted the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit in New Delhi to celebrate 25 years of engagement with the bloc

In the “Delhi Declaration” of the summit, the 11 leaders reiterated the importance of protecting peace and stability, maritime safety, freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful usages of the seas in the region

PM Modi held separate bilateral meetings with the ASEAN leaders, discussing issues of common concern such as security and commerce, while reaching separate country specific resolutions and agreements during the talks

The Republic Day celebrations this year was truly a historic occasion as India rolled out the red carpet for heads of states and governments from the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, all of who attended the prestigious event as joint guests of honour. This was an unprecedented diplomatic achievement for India, considering that in the past usually only one leader from a foreign partner nation has attended the Republic Day parade as the guest of honour. Since 1950, India has been hosting the head of a foreign state and government as the guest of honour for Republic Day celebrations, which not only serves to strengthen ties with that particular country, but is also indicative of India’s strategic priorities in economic and political relations.  

Over the last decade, heads of state and governments from South Korea (2010), Indonesia (2011), Thailand (2012), Bhutan (2013) and Japan (2014) have been the guests of honour at India’s Republic Day celebrations, emphasising the importance that India attaches to the South and Southeast Asia region. In 2015, at the first Republic Day parade following the swearing-in of Shri Narendra Modi’s current government, the President of United States had attended the event for the first time as the guest of honour. In 2016 the French President graced the occasion, underlining India’s growing global stature, and in 2017 India invited the Crown Prince of the UAE, reinforcing a new chapter in India’s political, economic and cultural relations with the country.

R-Day 2018  themed around ‘Act East’

The presence of all 10 ASEAN leaders as guests of honour at the 2018 Republic Day parade signifies the growing importance that India attaches to its extended neighbourhood in Southeast Asia as the fulcrum of its diplomatic policy, through the Act East strategy. The strategy, which was originally conceived as an economic initiative, has gained political, strategic and cultural dimensions including establishment of institutional mechanisms for improved dialogue and cooperation. This strategic initiative also reflects how much the ASEAN bloc values its multifaceted relations with India. As a result, not only was the ASEAN flag seen flying in the sky over Rajpath during the parade, two tableaux showcased India’s historical, educational, religious and cultural linkages with the ASEAN nations.  

A day before the Republic Day event, which is held annually on January 26th, India hosted the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit in New Delhi to celebrate 25 years of engagement with the ASEAN bloc. The summit had the theme of “Shared Values, Common Destiny”. In the “Delhi Declaration” released following the summit, the 11 leaders reiterated the importance of protecting peace and stability, maritime safety and freedom of navigation and overflight and other lawful usages of the seas in the region. The attendees collectively reaffirmed the need to achieve “peaceful resolutions of disputes” in accordance with the rules laid down by international multi-governmental institutions. The declaration also called for a comprehensive approach for countering cross-border terrorism.

Improving India-ASEAN economic ties

The leaders of India and the ASEAN bloc have resolved to facilitate increased interactions among the business communities to enhance trade and investment activities. While India-ASEAN trade has grown by 25 times over the last 25 years, at US$72 billion (in fiscal year 2016-17) it is still considered well below the estimated potential, particularly when contrasted with China-ASEAN trade was reported at US$452 billion in 2016. As part of the effort to improve trade ties, Southeast Asian nations have urged India to facilitate early conclusion of negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership  (RCEP), a proposed pan-Asian free trade agreement that could potentially create the world’s largest free-trade zone, including the 10 ASEAN states and six other partner nations.

India will also host an ASEAN-India startup festival this year and offer 1,000 scholarships to IIT campuses to doctoral students from ASEAN countries

Additionally, PM Modi has offered to set up digital villages in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, utilizing a US$1-billion line of credit for connectivity. India will also host an ASEAN-India startup festival this year and offer 1,000 scholarships to the premium Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) campuses to doctoral students from ASEAN countries. To further boost ties, 2019 will be marked as the year to commemorate and promote India-ASEAN tourism by all the 11 nations. As a goodwill gesture, India has announced that one eminent citizen from each 10 ASEAN countries will get a Padma Shri, one of India’s top civilian awards.

Growing Bilateral relations

During the visit of the ASEAN leaders to India, PM Modi held separate bilateral meetings with the individual leaders, before and after the summit. In addition to the issues of common concern (maritime security, counter-terrorism, commerce and connectivity), country specific issues were also addressed during these discussions, they have been summarised below:

  • Vietnam: Discussions were held on maritime cooperation, defence ties and steps to achieve the bilateral trade target of US$15 billion by 2020. Two MoUs were signed – one related to expansion of cooperation in information and broadcasting technology and the other related to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) establishing a tracking and data reception station and data processing facility in Vietnam. Operationalizing a US$100-million line of credit for manufacturing offshore patrol vessels by India’s Larsen & Toubro was also discussed.

  • Philippines: Discussions were focused on trade and investment, defence and security, education and people-to-people cooperation, improved intelligence sharing as well as capacity building to counter terrorism. Recognizing the potential of synergy between India’s “Act East” policy and Philippines’ Build-Build-Build programme, an agreement was signed to facilitate investment by providing practical investment information to enterprises of both countries. The Philippines’ President also discussed the possibility of introducing an AADHAR-like biometric and demographic data-based unique identification system with India’s help.

  • Myanmar: Productive discussions were held for strengthening of bilateral relations, operationalization of the Sittwe Port as well as a trilateral highway project connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand. Discussions also included cross-border trade, and follow-up on key decisions taken during PM Modi’s visit to Myanmar in September 2017, including India’s development programme for the Rakhine state in Myanmar.

  • Thailand: Constructive dialogue was held on economic and commercial exchange, connectivity, defence and  security, cultural cooperation and people-to-people exchanges. The under-construction India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project was also reviewed.
  • Singapore: Productive discussions were held on economic and commercial ties, tourism, enhanced connectivity, financial technology, information technology, smart cities, and enhancing cooperation in civil aviation sector.
  • Indonesia: The leaders of both the nations discussed ways to enhance bilateral engagement, especially in trade and people-to-people relations.
  • Brunei: Discussions were focused on enhancing cooperation in health sector, information technology, defence and security, oil and gas, education and space.
  • Cambodia: Wide-ranging talks were held on bilateral, regional and multilateral issues, with a common goal to work closely to further strengthen the relations. Four memorandum of understanding (MoUs) were signed in the areas of cultural exchange, water resource development, legal assistance in criminal matters and prevention of human trafficking.

In a fitting finale to the landmark occasion, PM Modi hailed the “historic milestone” and talked about the ‘great promise” of the India-ASEAN partnership in an op-ed published across 27 newspapers in 10 languages in all ASEAN countries on January 27th. With the ASEAN bloc clearly viewing India as an effective counterweight to China’s presence in the region, India would do well to take this opportunity by rapidly stepping up its engagement and cooperation with the multi-nation group as well as with its individual members.