New Delhi: The year 2017 is a landmark year for ties between India and the 10 member Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN.
As ASEAN looks to mark 50 years of its existence as a grouping, India is looking to commemorate 25 years of dialogue partnership with the bloc this year, senior officials in India’s foreign ministry said.
The year 2017 also completes 15 years of India-ASEAN dialogue at the summit level—ie between the heads of government of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Phillipines, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam on one hand and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the other.
Lastly, 2017 also commemorates the completion of five years of strategic partnership between Asia’s third-largest economy and one of the most successful economic groupings in the world.
To observe India’s connections nurtured with ASEAN in the past 25 years, New Delhi is planning a series of events which include signing of an air services agreement, a car rally and a maritime expedition by Indian naval ships to the region, said one foreign ministry official. “This will underline in particular the land and maritime connectivity links India has with the region besides air links," the official said.
India’s bid to accentuate its links with ASEAN comes at a time of flux in the region with China seen as growing more assertive vis-a-vis its territorial claims in the oil and gas-rich South China Sea, which is also a major international maritime trade route.
An international tribunal ruled in July that China has no historical claim over the South China Sea—something Beijing has chosen to ignore. With the US under President Donald Trump giving mixed signals about its commitment to the region, strategic uncertainties in the region are growing.
“There is now a real question mark over America’s ability to be the leader in the region. The new defence secretary Jim Mattis was in the region this week and tried to allay some of the concerns. But everyone is waiting and watching to see what the new US President will decide to do next," said Harsh V. Pant, professor of international relations, department of defence studies, at London’s King’s College.
It is against this backdrop that India is looking to make stronger inroads into ASEAN. Among them PM Modi, President Pranab Mukherjee and vice- president Hamid Ansari have visited nine out of the 10 ASEAN countries.
The only exception is the Philippines, which has not seen a visit by an Indian leader in the past many years but Modi is expected to rectify that when he visits Manila later this year for the India-ASEAN Summit.
“India needs to be serious about its role as a player in the Indo-Pacific," Pant said.
“There is a lot of demand for Indian presence which most regional states view as a benign force. But India is yet to give a signal that its remains committed to a long-term strategic presence in the region. Economically, India needs to develop connectivities with the region so that economic complementarities can be fully realised. Military, India needs to evolve into a robust security provider in the region. Diplomatically, it needs a sustained outreach. Culturally, it needs to build on the shared cultural linkages. And most importantly, New Delhi needs to build intellectual capital in the region so that India is studied and understood much more than is the case today," Pant added.