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Connecting ASEAN: The 21st Century will be a Century of the Seas, Skies and Space

ASEAN
Efforts by New Delhi to enhance connectivity—geographical, institutional and social—with the Southeast Asian region remain important for better regional integration.
ASEAN
Efforts by New Delhi to enhance connectivity—geographical, institutional and social—with the Southeast Asian region remain important for better regional integration.

New Delhi: India has proposed a $1 billion line of credit to promote sea, air and road connectivity projects with ASEAN. It is crucial for the success of the ASEAN Community to strengthen and build its intra-regional connectivity. This will lead to more investments in business and industry towards a more inclusive region.

While progress has been made on physical connectivity, ASEAN still needs to harmonize the laws and regulations to facilitate transport between each other. Furthermore, ASEAN also seeks to promote connectivity beyond ASEAN, particularly between ASEAN and other regions including East Asia.

Realizing a closer and more integrated Southeast Asian region still remains a challenge for ASEAN. Regional cohesiveness requires deeper linkages for a more competitive and resilient region. Addressing this challenge requires a closer look at ASEAN connectivity’s achievements and its shortfalls.

The nations who believe in progress have found the means to reach one another through either neighbor-induced or multilateral concentric circles.

This is a good moment for a good question: what does ‘neighbor’ mean? The human being is still land-centric. Our life, civilization, culture, agriculture, produce and production are still measured largely in land-terms. We therefore look at neighbors through the medium of distance. That, I would suggest, is becoming irrelevant. It is far more accurate to define neighbors by reach rather than distance. There are hundreds of flights between India and ASEAN every week, and we could add hundreds more without exhausting demand. On the other hand, we cannot fill even three flights a week to a country to our immediate west. So who is a neighbor? If I cannot reach you, are you a neighbor or an obstacle?

Our land-centric approach also tends to blind us to the sea map. The sea map of India extends to the Malacca straits, and the Indo-Pacific waters are already one of the major arteries of world commerce. From Andamans, Aceh is less than 100 nautical miles away; and it is said that on a clear night you can see the glow of Singapore’s lights from land’s end in Andamans. There is an air map as well. Chennai is only as far from Kuala Lumpur as it is from Delhi. Similarly, Delhi is exactly as far from Dubai as Dubai is from Cairo.

Connectivity has acquired exciting and creative dimensions. We are only at the edge of exploring the possibilities in communication. The 21st century will not belong to land; it will be a century of the seas, skies and space. India and ASEAN are neighbors in all senses of the word: distance, reach and, perhaps most important, in the cultural harmony and political philosophy around which we have managed our nations and put them in the forefront of modernity. People of every faith live as equals in our lands; the music of multiple languages entrances our environment; tradition merges seamlessly into the present; and common values strengthen the spirit of a shared destiny for our citizens.

Asia is, of course, synonymous with the east; but, interestingly, the word itself has come from the west. It is a Greek word, which the Greeks used for the Levant, where lived their oldest rivals, the Trojans. As the Greeks discovered the expanse of the east, Levant became Asia Minor. Alexander overwhelmed the mighty Persian Empire, which stretched from the Mediterranean to the Indus; India, of course, was the land beyond the Indus. As we all know, Alexander stopped in the Punjab – and probably lost his life thanks to a wound in an encounter at Multan – although he knew enough by then about the intellectual and material wealth of India, and indeed of the weakness of the prevalent Nanda Empire. The Portuguese were the first invaders to reach India by sea. Trade was their first interest; domination followed. After Waterloo in 1815, Britain, as the pre-eminent power, doubled the number of ships to India and China. Trade, it may be noted, is never neutral; it is the outcome of a knowledge edge in science, technology and prowess. Britain displaced India and China in world markets, notably Africa, where till the 18th century Indian calico and silk-cotton ruled the markets. By 1850 Britain was sending 17 million yards of fabric to West Africa alone, up from just one million in 1825.

If Asia is the east, then it is India that is the true middle of the east. All you have to do is look at the map. Geo-politically, and for many other reasons, India is the pivotal nation of Asia. ASEAN launched the process of redefinition by concentrating on the logic of regional groups. The most important aspect of ASEAN was that its focus was on the welfare of the people, which lay in trade, travel and economic growth; and not on the welfare of governments, which were rarely able to look beyond their nose, or look beyond a military alliance.

Why are India and ASEAN natural partners?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has summed up the essence of his foreign policy in an evocative phrase: “Shared values, common destiny”.

The Northeast is a natural partner in India’s Act East Policy vis-à-vis the ASEAN. The Kaladan Multi Modal Transport project, India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and the Rih Tedim Project in Myanmar will in due course contribute to the enhancement of connectivity between India and Southeast Asia, via India’s Northeast. The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project aims to connect the Indian seaport of Kolkata with Sittwe in Myanmar, and from Myanmar to Mizoram by road transport.

The India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) Trilateral Highway—connecting Moreh in India with Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar—is also under construction. The project will bolster trade and commerce in the ASEAN-India Free Trade Area. India intends to extend the highway to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, and the proposed route from India to Vietnam will be known as the East-West Economic Corridor (EWEC).

The Rih-Tedim project aims to establish connectivity between eastern Mizoram and western Mizoram.

Efforts by New Delhi to enhance connectivity—geographical, institutional and social—with the Southeast Asian region remain important for better regional integration. More significantly, greater connectivity between India and Southeast Asia will engender developmental gains for India and ASEAN member states.

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