Discovery of Asia
Assembling all 10 heads of state or government of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) in Delhi, as chief guests for the 2018 Republic Day parade, is undoubtedly a big push for India’s Act East policy. Asean leaders will also be attending the Indo-Asean Commemorative Summit marking 25 years of their dialogue partnership. There’s no denying what lends urgency to this confluence: America withdrawing from the region and China muscling in. Some parallels between Asean and the European Union (EU) are interesting in this regard. European nations chose to drop their differences and come together because of the experience of two world wars. Likewise, Asean nations were initially brought together by the fear of rising communist insurgencies in their neighbourhood in the 1960s.
A similar situation looms today, as China’s meteoric economic rise is transforming into Chinese assertiveness on territorial disputes in the region, together with other ways of undermining a multilateral rules-based order. As a result, despite Asean’s deep economic engagements with China, the bloc doesn’t want to put all its eggs in Beijing’s basket. On India’s part, boosting ties with Asean has multiple benefits. Not only is greater connectivity with the bloc crucial to developing India’s northeast region, greater Asean investments into India can result in a multiplier effect across economic sectors.
Asean nations like Vietnam are well-integrated with global value chains. India can tap into these to give its own manufacturing sector a boost. Similarly, facilitating greater Indian service sector exports to Asean as well as freer movement of people is imperative. The services-manufacturing combo can lead to a balanced trade and investment relationship by drawing on each side’s inherent strengths.
There’s also a case for boosting tourism cooperation. Many Indian tourists have already experienced high-quality tourism facilities in Asean nations. The same could be replicated for Asean and other tourists to India by inviting tourism and hospitality companies from the bloc to invest in popular circuits, such as the one centred on Bodh Gaya. There’s also scope for enhancing security cooperation between India and Asean, all of which could be used to moot the next big idea: Indian membership in Asean, which would become one of the world’s most dynamic economic zones. Asean favours a looser union structure than EU while India joining up would make it as potent as EU; making its chances of future success correspondingly greater.