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India's relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has gradually evolved over the years. ASEAN, a regional organisation, is composed of the Southeast Asian countries, namely Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Brunei. ASEAN aims to bring forth Southeast Asian interests and facilitate political, economic and security cooperation as well as educational and sociocultural integration among its members. The historical relations between India and Southeast Asia have actively influenced the foreign policy objectives of the Indian government in spheres of trade and security, especially following the quest for economic liberalisation after the end of the Cold War.

The shared historical connection spanning over two millennia between India and Southeast Asia has relied on the movement of goods, people, culture and ideas, including religion. Retrospectively, India's foreign affairs since its independence indicate that engagement with Southeast Asia could have led to higher degrees of cooperation and reaped greater benefits on both sides. To claim the absence of such a relation would be incorrect but it is worth noting that the immensely promising potential of such cooperation was left unexplored for a significant period of our independent history due to India’s focus on establishing its postcolonial identity.

The inception of the 'Look East Policy' in 1991 and the Indian government's subsequent efforts to pursue it, leading to the eventual culmination of the 'Act East Policy' under the Modi administration, represented a paradigm shift in the economic and strategic priorities of India's foreign policy objectives based on an inherent desire to become a regional power. The Look East Policy was an Indian foreign policy to shift the focus from the West and engage with Southeast Asian countries that had booming economies at that time. The Act East Policy, while based on the same impetus, widens the scope of the previous policy driven by economic interests, by including security and strategic partnerships with the region within its ambit.

As a result, it is clear that under the Modi administration, Southeast Asia has become a broader foreign policy priority for India in the realms of economy and security. While the desire itself emerged out of a growing concern for China's growing presence in the region, Indian aspirations to engage with ASEAN was a predictable outcome following the Cold War to facilitate growth among India and ASEAN countries working towards establishing a sustainable relationship. The commitments between India and ASEAN on cooperation in spheres of trade and maritime security has dominated dialogues. Yet, the fulfilment of these promises is another matter altogether.

ASEAN-India Economic Cooperation

The ASEAN-India Free Trade Area (FTA) came into effect on 1 January 2010. The establishment of the free trade area created a clear operational framework within which economic cooperation could be pursued. The FTA has pushed trade in goods between India and ASEAN close to $70 billion. The Minister of External Affairs of India, Smt. Sushma Swaraj has set an ambitious target of $200 billion in bilateral trade by 2022 (Roche, 2018). The India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, an infrastructural work in progress, will actively contribute to the growth of commerce and trade with ASEAN countries by facilitating the easy movement of goods and people. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which includes India and ASEAN countries along with others in the Asia-Pacific region, is the largest economic bloc in the world, accounting for nearly half of the global economy and consisting of 3.4 billion people. The following conclusion of the RCEP negotiations by the end of 2018 will allow both India and ASEAN to harness the true potential of the region. 

Despite the optimistic inferences one can draw from these developments, several issues need to be addressed. Even with trade in goods with ASEAN amounting to $76 billion, India continues to rank lower than the United States of America, China, Japan, South Korea, and Australia (“ASEAN rising”, 2018). The construction of the Trilateral Highway and other projects, undertaken to increase connectivity, have failed to meet deadlines, with insufficient investments in infrastructure to support the projects. The ASEAN resistance to movement of Indian services and labour is highly concerning, becoming one of the reasons for the stalling of a finalised outcome of the RCEP. 

Unlike China, India has been unable to identify ASEAN as an essential market for export and investment because of the Indian preference of exporting services over goods. The reason behind this is that service sectors in Southeast Asian countries remain highly protected, so until domestic policies in these countries change, it looks incredibly problematic for India to achieve the level of cooperation it wishes to in export of services. There is an incredible amount that can be made through the economic cooperation between India and ASEAN, but there needs to be a higher amount of engagement to deal with the obstacles that prevent the attainment of the larger goals of economic integration.

Maritime Security in the Indo-Pacific

The commercial value of sea-lanes in the region makes maritime security such a focal point in dialogues between India and ASEAN. Acts of piracy have been a common occurrence on the high seas, and quite understandably so, considering that the region consists of one of the busiest waterways in the world. With increased concerns due to international terrorism, the threat to cargo vessels, oil and gas tankers were realised, which has led to increased cooperation in naval exercises to meet common security interests. India's cooperation with Vietnam on maritime security stands out, and naval exercises that promote such collaboration should be encouraged. 

Maritime policy on a more strategic level between India and ASEAN will continue to be guided by Chinese naval forays in the South China Sea because of the dominance that China exercises in the region. Chinese claims and assertiveness in the South China Sea have been a cause of worry for Southeast Asia, especially Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam, which are actively engaged in disputes with China in the region. With Beijing stepping up the creation of military infrastructure, the Delhi Declaration, which was a joint statement issued at the commemorative summit to mark the 25th anniversary of the ASEAN-India Dialogue Relations (January 2018).

The Delhi Declaration showcased Indian support for ASEAN maritime objectives, and it called for a quick conclusion to the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. ASEAN leaders applauded the positive role of India in the Indo-Pacific region during the Delhi Summit of January 2018 highlighting the invitation extended by ASEAN countries for an increased Indian role to balance the impact of Chinese maritime policy on Southeast Asian countries. 

ASEAN countries have repeatedly called upon India to step up its strategic and economic involvement in the region because they view India as a benign power in opposition to China. Indian naval ships travelling to ports in ASEAN countries in the past year reflect positively on the growing acknowledgement of a mutually beneficial relationship in the maritime sphere. The Delhi Declaration was a promising step, but there is a long way to go before the cooperation materialises in a manner to achieve the intended result.


Chinese ambitions and implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative along with the power to exercise unquestioned influence in Southeast Asia has provided an incentive for the reconsideration of Indian foreign policy objectives, giving traction to the Act East Policy under the Modi administration. It is quite clear that there is a desire on both sides to fulfil the potential that a relationship between India and ASEAN promises. The inadequacy in committing to operationalising mutually accepted ideas remains a pressing concern that limits the fulfilment. Commerce, connectivity, and culture will continue to be the foundation of the relationship between the two parties.

Substantial engagement is required on both sides to address significant policy questions related to economic integration and maritime security - two agendas prioritised in dialogues between India and ASEAN. India should focus on strengthening the underpinnings of the relationship by enhancing cooperation on a functional level. Failure to do so will only result in endless reaffirmations of previously realised objectives, creating a stagnancy that will restrict both parties from extracting the maximum benefit from such a potentially promising relationship.


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Written By Rahul Das

Second-year undergraduate, pursuing History and International Relations from Ashoka University.

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