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Ashok Lahiri: Rich cousins to the east

Re-establishing India's relations with Southeast Asia will take perseverance - but should pay off handsomely

Ashok K Lahiri 

Ashok K Lahiri

Cultivating extensive economic and strategic relations in Southeast Asia requires a lot of backroom negotiations, including at the highest level. Policymaking seems to have progressed from "Look East" to "Act East." Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visits to Malaysia and Singapore in November were the eighth to India's rich cousins to the east. This includes a visit to not-so-rich Myanmar, an Association for Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) member, but not to Fiji and Australia.

Overcoming the weakening of India's link to the east over centuries of colonial rule is a daunting challenge. Memories of Angkor Wat and Borobudur have faded. The highlight of India's engagements in the east was as lackeys of the British colonial masters, for example as Bengal Volunteers or Madras Native Infantry during the First Opium War in the 1840s. Tales from the past, such as the glory that was Kolkata, and an unwillingness to look deeply at how the east was growing did not help. With India's commitment to non-alignment during the Cold War years, today's rich cousins of the east were summarily dismissed as members of the anti-communist US camp. Overcoming these infirmities requires a lot of pragmatism and perseverance.

The history of Asean is itself a revealing story of pragmatic perseverance by its members. The Association of Southeast Asia (ASA) formed in 1961 by Malaya, the Philippines, and Thailand collapsed with the Malaya-Philippines conflict over Sabah in Borneo. MAPHILINDO (a confederation of Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia) proposed in 1963 failed in its planning phase with confrontation between Indonesia and Malaysia. Singapore was expelled from Malaysia and became independent on August 9, 1965. It was in such troubled times that, on August 8, 1967, the Bangkok Declaration leading to the formation of Asean was signed by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

From coping with regional political instability as its primary goal until the 1970s, Asean has come a long way. It has become a Free Trade Area, with a Common Effective Preferential Tariff Scheme. Brunei Darussalam, right after independence, became the sixth member in January, 1984. After Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia in 1989, the pragmatic leaders of Vietnam and Asean members moved rapidly to induct that country as Asean's seventh member in July, 1995. Laos and Myanmar joined in July, 1997. Cambodia followed in 1999.

With a looming China threat, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visited Singapore and Malaysia in 1968 to seek strategic cooperation with Asean. Without a broader agenda for regional cooperation, it did not yield the expected results. Even in 1976, during the emergency, there were visits by Indian ministers to the five original members of Asean - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand - but nothing much came of it.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, meaningful dialogue started only when there was better convergence between domestic and foreign policy goals of India and Asean. With economic liberalisation under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, India became a sectoral dialogue partner in 1992, a full dialogue partner in 1995 and a member of the Asean regional forum in 1996.

In the context of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in 1996, Asean started a special relationship with China, South Korea and Japan in December 1997, and institutionalised it in the 'ASEAN+3' cooperation in 1999. This was no surprise. Plus-3 had the largest economic clout in Asia. While ASEM has seen new members, including India, joining over time, the special relationship between Asean and Plus-3 has continued, especially after the cooperation between the two groups during the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

Malaysia, the host of the 27th Asean summit last month, played a mixed role in the development of India-Asean relations in the past. Although a Muslim country, under its first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, it placed international relations on a set of considerations wider than just religion. It supported India not only during the Chinese war of 1962, but also in the war with Pakistan in 1965. It severed diplomatic ties with Pakistan in October 1965.

But after Rahman, and particularly under Mahathir bin Muhammad, closer links with Pakistan cast a shadow on India-Malaysia relations. Malaysia, citing the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodha, opposed the proposal to have a separate India-Asean summit, a proposal strongly supported by other members. Fortunately, India-Malaysia relations are looking up after Mr Mahathir's departure in 2003.

It is clear that India stands to benefit from a closer cooperation with Asean, a grouping of 10 countries with a population of over 625 million and gross domestic product of about $2.5 trillion. Asean is an economic powerhouse in India's neighbourhood, and is growing. After Mr Modi's meeting with Asean heads of states on November 21 in Kuala Lumpur, the meeting's chairman - Najib Razak, the prime minister of Malaysia - concluded that, apart from further liberalisation of trade in goods, implementation and trade facilitation issues regarding the Asean-India Trade in Goods Agreement remain. He also said there was a need to conclude the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement in a balanced way.

Mr Razak welcomed India's initiatives with regard to improving India-Asean connectivity in all three dimensions - physical, institutional and people-to-people. For example, he mentioned the Indian offer of a $1-billion line of credit for Asean member states to undertake connectivity related projects under the Asean-India Strategic partnership and funding for a stand-alone Asean-India Trade and Investment Centre.

There is no easy way to re-establish extensive economic and strategic relations in Southeast Asia. Perseverance is a must and is likely to pay off because of two positive factors. First, the likely emergence of India as the fastest growing major economy. Attitude towards a poorer cousin improves when she is the dark horse of the future. Second, India already has some reliable partners, such as Singapore and Vietnam, among the Asean countries, and there is palpable unease about China's claims on what it calls the South China Sea.

The writer is an economist

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First Published: Tue, December 01 2015. 21:50 IST