India and East Asia Relations | 20th November

The ASEAN region along with India together comprises a combined population of 1.85 billion people, which is one-fourth of the global population and their combined GDP has been estimated at over USD 3.8 trillion. So the East Asia Region is most important for India and vice versa.

About 15th East Asia Summit

15th East Asia Summit was held recently with VietNam as a chair and concluded with the adoption of the Hanoi Declaration. External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar represented India at the 15th East Asia Summit (EAS).

Highlights of Ha Noi Declaration

  • Regional issues unique to ASEAN like the meeting with the ambassadors at Jakarta, regional connectivity, and the narrowing of development gaps within ASEAN were included.
  •  leaders had documents for the regional economy, marine sustainability, dealing with epidemics, and the role of women.
  • The entire document only has mere 12 paragraphs. This is because China, backed by Russia, introduced several ideas at the drafting stage which queered the pitch. To remove these, other substantive ideas were dropped.

Besides the Hanoi Declaration, the summit also adopted four other leaders’ statements on Marine Sustainability; Epidemics Prevention and Response; Women, Peace and Security; and Steady Growth of Regional Economy.

 About East Asia Summit:

It was established in 2005. It is a premier forum in the Asia-Pacific region dealing with issues relating to security and defense with the following features;

  • Members: It comprises the ten member states of the ASEAN countries along with 8 members Australia, China, Japan, India, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Russia, and the United States. India is a founding member of the East Asia Summit. (In short ASEAN Plus Six, USA, and Russia).
  • Priority Areas: There are six priority areas of regional cooperation within the framework of the EAS which are a) Environment and Energy b) Education c) Finance d) Global Health Issues and Pandemic Diseases e) Natural Disaster Management and f) ASEAN Connectivity.
  • Significance:
    • The members of the EAS together represent 54% of the world population and account for 58% of the global GDP.
    • It is usually held just after the second ASEAN summit of the year when the ASEAN also meets its dialogue partners.
    • They also meet for ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Plus meet.

Importance of East Asia to India:

India has always considered East Asia as a region of a high economic and strategic priority since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru. India’s linkages with Southeast Asia encompass numerous aspects including culture, diaspora, defence cooperation, economic ties, and India’s own developmental and security concerns. Each of these factors contributes to the strategic significance of countries in the region for India:

  • India’s Indo-Pacific vision is premised upon the principle of ‘ASEAN-Centrality’, which signifies the importance of East Asian countries for India.
  • Vietnam has traditionally been a close friend on defense issues, Singapore is an equally important partner.
  • By virtue of being a maritime neighbor and the biggest country in terms of size, population, and economy, Indonesia has always been a priority country.
  • India has also maintained cordial relations with Malaysia and the Philippines Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam are critically important for the development and security of India’s north-eastern states.
  • Transport linkages and religious tourism have further enhanced their importance.
  • Access to the South China Sea directly improves the Freedom of navigation on the seas and its resources including petroleum products, Polymetallic nodules, etc.

Initiatives taken to improve the relationship

  • We Shifted our policy from Look East Policy to Act East policy in 2014 with more active engagement in the region. Act East Policy includes the following features:
    • To promote economic cooperation, develop a strategic relationship and cultural ties with ASEAN and East Asian Countries
    • To increase the interaction of the North-Eastern states with other neighboring countries.
    • Focussing on 4 C’s (Culture, Commerce, Connectivity and Capacity Building)
  • Delhi Dialogue is a premier annual event to discuss politico-security, the economic and socio-cultural engagement between India and ASEAN.
  • Joint Naval and Military exercises between East Asian countries Ex. India and Vietnam held a joint naval exercise
  • India – Myanmar – Thailand trilateral highway project which connects Moreh, India with Mae Sot, Thailand via Myanmar.
  • Kaladan project connects Sittwe Port in Myanmar to the India-Myanmar border. It will reduce the distance from Kolkata to Sittwe by approximately 1328 km and will reduce the need to transport goods through the narrow Siliguri corridor.
  • India is developing its maiden deep-sea port in a strategically-located Sabang port in Indonesia.
  • India is also trying to establish a Maritime Transportation Agreement with ASEAN and also Plans for a railway link between New Delhi in India to Hanoi in Vietnam.

Importance of India to East Asia:

  • India’s long trustworthy relationship and reliability in relationships can help in countering the Chinese Influence in the region and can act as a counterweight in the issues like South China Sea Disputes etc.
  • Since VietNam and other countries are getting improved in merchandise trade, India is a good market for those countries
  • India’s strategic location links the East Asian Countries with the Central Asian Countries.
  • India’s ability to provide Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR)
  • India’s Service sector, growing Tourism market, etc all are important for East Asian Countries.

Challenges in India and East Asia Relations:

  • Trade imbalance between India and ASEAN, which remains skewed in ASEAN’s favor. India’s trade deficit with ASEAN increased from a mere USD$0.5 billion in 2005-2006 to USD$14.6 billion in 2015-2016.
  • India has not signed RCEP for various reasons like non-transparency in RCEP, RCEP’s non-accounting of India’s service sector relaxations, etc. By not signing the RCEP India also lose access to new market opportunities created in East Asia.
RCEP(Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership):

  • It is a trade deal that is currently signed by ASEAN Plus Six Countries except for India. Negotiations on the details of the RCEP have been on since 2013.
  • RCEP is viewed as an alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed trade agreement that includes several Asian and American nations but excludes China and India.
  • India recently notified Country of Origin regulations which is one of the issues for the East Asian Countries as they reroute many products from China and sell them to India.
  • India is working on revising the FTA’s between India- Japan and India-South Korea relationships bilaterally which divert the focus of India towards Japan and South Korea.
  • Despite the geopolitical rivalry and consistent trouble in the South China Sea, China is a dominant player because there is no other credible alternative, so China is the largest trading partner and investor for ASEAN.
    • As the ASEAN and other countries except India signed the RCEP agreement the position of China can be strengthened in the near future.
    • China’s constant undermining of ASEAN countries is evident by Cambodia and Laos have become a much closer ally to China because of its Cheque Book Diplomacy
  • The relevance of ASEAN itself is at stake
    • ASEAN countries themselves are not taking a stand and being in a paralyzed state. This is evident by the mere 12 paragraph Hanoi Declaration.
    • There is a regionalization present in the ASEAN itself. For Ex – Cambodia, and Laos almost supports China but at the same time VietNam, the Philippines, and Indonesia opposes China for their authoritarianism.

Way forward

  • The revival of the US-led TPP can provide an alternative to China-dominated RCEP, which may improve India’s relationship with the East Asian Countries.
  • The concept of QUAD must be expanded to include the ASEAN countries and become a QUAD+ arrangement. Vietnam and Indonesia were expressing a positive note on QUAD in the region.
  • India and Japan together have few initiatives like Asia – Africa Growth Corridor which is going through the ASEAN region has the ability to become an alternative to Belt and Road Initiative
  • Australia-Japan-India together announced the SCRI(Supply Chain Resilience Initiative) to diversify the supply chain instead of relying on one or few countries. ASEAN can play a major role in that.
  • Indo Pacific policies have to improve with the active cooperation from the USA along with India, Japan, and Australia.
  • ASEAN cannot retain its centrality if it becomes a Chinese orbit so the ASEAN itself has to improve the balance between them.
  • Role of India in improving ties:
    • Giving more focus to India’s Act East Policy.
    • Though East Asian countries depend on China for trade relations they never trusted China for their military alliance. This is evident as no country from ASEAN has close military ties with China so far. India can become the military partner after our Atma Nirbar Bharat, Make In India projects successfully implemented.
    • Faster completion of projects. For ex. India – Myanmar – Thailand highway is under construction for more than a decade now. Similar can be said to Kaladan Multimodal transport corridor.

To make East Asian Countries especially ASEAN more relevant, the only way is to put together coherent alternatives for connectivity, supply chain, and economic well-being. This makes East Asian Economies assert their sovereignty and not fall for China’s ambitions. Then together the relations between the nations can reach cloud nine.

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