India marked its 69th Republic Day celebrations on Jan. 26 by showcasing its military might, cultural diversity and democratic values, for the first time enjoying the undivided attention of 10 Southeast Asian heads of state as guests.

During their two-day visit, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders participated in the Indo-ASEAN Commemorative Summit to celebrate 25 years of engagement with India. They also held discussions with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on issues of common interests including security, commerce and terrorism.

The relationship between India and the ASEAN region goes back centuries, but for a long time after its independence in 1947, India did not pay much attention to this part of the world.

In the 1990s, the disintegration of the Soviet Union – India’s time-honored friend – and an acute economic crisis forced India to foster greater engagement with the countries of East Asia and Southeast Asia.


Photo Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

This became evident in 1992 when Prime Minister Narshimha Rao adopted the “Look East” policy to reach out to this region.

Consequently, India became a Sectoral Dialogue Partner of ASEAN in 1992, a full Dialogue Partner in 1996 and Summit Level Partner in 2002. The relationship between India and ASEAN was elevated into a strategic partnership in 2012. India is a part of the ASEAN-led East Asia Summit, ASEAN Defense Ministerial Meeting Plus, the ASEAN Regional Forum and about 30 other dialogue mechanisms covering various fields.

While former prime ministers Atal Bihar Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh continued to strengthen ties with ASEAN between the late 90s and 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown unprecedented desire to elevate the relationship with ASEAN countries, transforming India’s “Look East” slogan into the more dynamic “Act East.” While the Modi government has hosted leaders of several ASEAN countries, Modi became the first Indian prime minister in 30 years to visit the Philippines in November last year.

Thus, the presence of 10 ASEAN leaders in New Delhi cannot be seen merely as an exercise of commemorating the completion of 25 years of India-ASEAN relations. This assessment becomes clear from the Delhi Declaration released at the end of the ASEAN leaders’ visit. The declaration emphasizes the need for greater political, security, economic, commercial and cultural cooperation between the two sides.

Of course, economic cooperation is one fulcrum of India-ASEAN relations, with trade between the two sides having ballooned from US$2.9 billion in 1993 to US$76.3 billion in 2016.

The two sides established a target to more than double trade volume to US$200 billion by 2022, and agreed to intensify efforts in 2018 toward negotiating a swift conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a free trade deal that would include India, ASEAN, China, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

China looks on

Improving ties with ASEAN will also play a crucial role in the development of India's northeastern states, since this region connects Southeast Asia to the rest of India.

At a time when China is backing up its claims to parts of the South China Sea by re-enforcing newly constructed military bases in the region and is eyeing an expansion of its presence in the Indian Ocean, not to mention its recent aggressive posturing towards India over the still simmering border dispute around the Doklam plateau, both India and ASEAN have compelling reasons to foster improved security engagement. For its part, ASEAN appears to be playing a cool hand in balancing China and India's competing interests in the region, with key players having toned down explosive anti-China rhoeteric in the recent past.

The Delhi Deceleration mentioned the need to strengthen maritime cooperation through existing relevant mechanisms including the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF) to address common challenges and issues.

China closely watched the India-ASEAN meeting in New Delhi, with an editorial in the Global Times last week suggesting: “Some members of the Indian elite enjoy engaging in geopolitical bluster. But they cannot truly gauge the reality of India’s comprehensive strength and diplomatic experience. They are beginners playing at geopolitics.”

One of the biggest challenges that India and ASEAN countries are facing in expanding their engagement is poor connectivity. ASEAN availed itself of a US$1 billion line of credit announced by India to promote physical infrastructure and digital connectivity. They also encouraged the early completion of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway Project and the extension of the infrastructure project to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

With the visit of 10 ASEAN leaders to India, one can hope that the two sides will take concrete steps to sustain and further transform the relationship in the future.

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TNL Editor: Morley J Weston