In an interview with Diplomacy & Beyond Plus, the resident Ambassador of Indian Mission to ASEAN, H.E. Suresh K. Reddy discusses in detail about the India-ASEAN relationship and the way forward towards a strategic partnership. India has been cooperating with ASEAN by way of implementation of various projects in many diverse areas like Agriculture, Science & Technology, Space, Environment & Climate Change, New and Renewable Energy and Tourism to name a few.
- Excellency, as an Ambassador of India to ASEAN describe your stay in Indonesia so far in diplomatic and cultural terms?
It has been an exceptionally wonderful experience staying in Indonesia for the past three years. Every day I have been reminded of the shared civilization, culture and values when I step out of my residence or office. It is a society that prides itself on its spirit of moderation and tolerance and it is reflected in how they have assimilated different cultures over the years and converted them into their culture. Professionally Indonesia is the biggest Member State of ASEAN, largest economy and the ASEAN Secretariat is headquartered here. So naturally we are kept occupied on a daily basis attending meetings, events, interaction with academics, think tanks etc. I believe my family also enjoys their stay here as much as I do.
- This year, India and ASEAN are marking 25 years of dialogue partnership, 15 years of summit level interaction, and five years of strategic partnership, through a wide range of activities, both in India and through Indian missions in ASEAN member-states, including a commemorative summit on the theme, ‘Shared Values, Common Destiny’. Kindly shed some light on the most important milestones achieved in all these years?
It has been a rich partnership and has developed into a mutually rewarding multi-faceted engagement over the years. India became a sectoral Dialogue Partner of ASEAN in 1992, full Dialogue Partner in 1996, Summit level partner in 2002, East Asia Summit Partner in 2005 and Strategic Partner in 2012. There are over 30 dialogue mechanisms and 8 Ministerial level meetings annually in addition to the Summit level interaction between our leaders.
India and ASEAN decided to celebrate this partnership by undertaking a wide range of activities, both in India and ASEAN Member States. These commemorative activities are set to culminate in participation of all Heads of State/Heads of Government of ASEAN and India in the ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit at New Delhi on 25th January, 2018 on the theme “Shared Values, Common Destiny”, and in the Indian Republic Day Celebrations on 26th January, 2018. These events will provide considerable political boost to ASEAN-India Relations.
India signed many agreements with ASEAN to give shape to this partnership, including ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity, together with its Plan of Action to implement the Partnership, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), Joint Declaration for Cooperation in Combating International Terrorism, ASEAN-India Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation, ASEAN-India Tradein- Goods Agreement, ASEAN-India Trade-in-Services Agreement, ASEAN-India Trade-in-Investment Agreement etc.
India has been cooperating with ASEAN by way of implementation of various projects in the fields of Agriculture, Science & Technology, Space, Environment & Climate Change, Human Resource Development, Capacity Building, New and Renewable Energy, Tourism, People-to-People contacts and Connectivity etc. ICT has been added as an area of cooperation in recent years. In the field of agriculture, many new projects have been identified in the 4th ASEAN-India Ministerial Meeting on Agriculture and Forestry held on 12th January, 2018 at New Delhi.
In the S&T field, India and ASEAN have broadened cooperation to include the ASEAN-India Innovation Platform, ASEAN-India Research & Training Fellowship Scheme, and ASEAN India Collaborative Research and Development Programme under the enhanced ASEAN-India Science and Technology Development fund of USD 5 million.
India has an active program with ASEAN in the field of Space Technology including establishment of Telemetry and Tracking Command (TTC) stations and Data Collection Centres at Biak (Indonesia) & Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam). India also conducts capacity building programs for ASEAN personnel at Indian Space Institutions.
In the field of HR & Education, India has a number of programs under HRD such as establishment of Centers for English Language Training in ASEAN countries, Entrepreneurship Development Centers, Vocational Training Centers, and Software development Centers to conduct capacity building programs in education. India also offers a number of scholarships to ASEAN countries under ITEC, ICCR, MGC and BIMSTEC programs. New scholarship programs such as Nalanda Scholarships, ASEAN-India Goodwill scholarships etc. have been opened in recent years.
- Establishing better relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors has been a top priority for Prime Minister Shree Narendra Modi. Please throw some light on India’s Act East Policy and its importance for ASEAN?
India has put ASEAN at the cornerstone of the new ‘Act East Policy’ unveiled in 2014. A more proactive engagement with ASEAN with clear targets on increasing Commerce, Connectivity and Culture is the hallmark of the new policy. ASEAN have also launched 3 Blueprints in ASEAN Vision 2025 and also a Master Plan for ASEAN Connectivity i.e. MPAC 2025, whose realization we have supported.
ASEAN and India have identified priority areas for the period of 2016-2018 and are already implementing activities under it, which would contribute towards successful implementation of the A-I Plan of Action 2016-2020. The implementation of the prioritized activities has taken place at a brisk pace.
- India’s Act East Policy is shaped around the ASEAN, and its centrality in the regional security architecture of the Indo-Pacific region is evident. What are the key challenges in this regard?
The ‘Act East Policy’, enunciated by Hon’ble Prime Minister in November 2014, brought greater focus and a more strategic outlook in India’s engagements with the ASEAN and the larger Asia-Pacific neighbourhood. India is an active participant in several ASEAN centered regional forums like the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus (ADMM+), Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum and SOMTC+ India consultations.
India is one of the staunchest supporters of ASEAN Centrality as the bulwark in the Indo-pacific region. India has established cooperation with ASEAN on issues of Counter-terrorism, Cyber security, IUUF, Sea-borne piracy, Drug abuse, Natural disasters, etc. India supports the evolution of an inclusive, balanced, transparent and open regional architecture for security and cooperation. We must deepen our collective commitment to strengthen and abide by international rules and norms.
The challenges emanate from external factors such as global economic slowdown and threats to regional stability, and not due to internal factors in ASEAN and India. The ASEAN have done a yeoman service to the region by developing consensus-driven and ASEAN-led processes which have succeeded in facing these challenges to a large extent.
- Prime Minister Modi has emphasized on rich historical maritime links between India and ASEAN member states. What are key areas of maritime cooperation between India and ASEAN?
India believes that the oceans remain the pathway to our prosperity and security. India shares with ASEAN a commitment to freedom of navigation, over flight and unimpeded commerce, in accordance with accepted principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. India believes that Territorial disputes must be settled through peaceful means. India believes in strengthening cooperation with ASEAN in Traditional and nontraditional areas of security. India has conducted two East Asia Summit Conferences on Maritime Security and Cooperation in 2015 and 2016 and the third Conference would be held later this year. India is also cooperating on Maritime matters in the ARF, ADMM+ and EAMF format with ASEAN.
As part of silver jubilee celebrations, Indian Naval Ships have visited Thailand, Singapore, Viet Nam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia. We have proposed joint exercises and fleet reviews with ASEAN. We are also discussing new avenues of cooperation including on Blue Economy, pollution of the oceans including plastic debris which has emerged as the priority threat to the fisheries and livestock in the oceans, sustainable fishing, sustainable marine tourism, Illegal & unidentified unregulated fishing etc. We look forward to early conclusion of the Agreement on Maritime Transport Cooperation which would further boost maritime connectivity.
- Republic Day 2018 will be the first time that state heads of 10 South East Asian nations will share the platform together. How do you see this development in light of ASEAN regional cooperation?
The Commemorative Summit on 25th January followed by the presence of the ten leaders as our honoured guests at the Republic Day celebrations are indeed historic milestones in our engagement with ASEAN. This would be first time ever we would be having such a large number of leaders at the same platform joining the 1.3 billion Indians in the celebrations.
The Summit would reiterate the message of importance that the leaders attach to this partnership, lay the blue print for future engagement, identify new areas for cooperation and essentially reiterate the common desire of creating a community of shared progress and prosperity stretching from Singapore to Trivandrum, Cambodia to Chennai and from Jakarta to Mumbai.
- What are the key steps taken by India to knit the natural economies of the South Asian region together?
There are potentially huge opportunities for growth of ASEAN India relations. ASEAN and India are home to rapidly expanding markets, not only due to burgeoning population, but also due to their rising income-levels. Moreover, the middle classes are growing at a fast pace in ASEAN and India due to widespread economic reforms and favourable economic and political environment in the region which is producing market integration and streamlining of national policies.
To boost Commerce with ASEAN, India has signed an ASEAN-India Free Trade Agreements on Goods, Services and Investments. This has created one of the largest single market in the region with immense potential Politically, ASEAN and India are natural partners in the region because their relationship is unique and sans irritants. On the economic front, it is only natural as two large and rapidly growing economies of the world, ASEAN with its economy of USD 2.4 trillion and India with USD 2.3 trillion wish to strengthen their economic partnership for mutual benefit.
The discussions at the Summit would only support the realization of the larger regional integration and strengthen the political and people to people engagement.India-ASEAN trade and investment relations have been growing steadily, with ASEAN being India’s fourth largest trading partner. India’s trade with ASEAN has increased to USD 70 billion in 2016-17 from US$ 65 billion in 2015-16. Simultaneously, India has been actively participating in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations (RCEP).
RCEP member states account for a population of 3.4 billion people with a total Gross Domestic Product of $49.5 trillion i.e. approximately 39 percent of the world’s GDP. A number of Business events were undertaken in 2017 under various sectors to create new opportunities, such as, Telecom Expo in New Delhi, 6th Global Economic Summit in Mumbai, North-East Business Summit, ASEAN-India MSME Summit, India-Indonesia-ASEAN: Prospects for Economic Integration at Jakarta, ASEAN-India Biztech Conference at Kuala Lumpur, ASEAN-India Trade Expo at Bangkok, ASEAN-India ICT Expo at Jakarta and forthcoming ASEAN-India Business Summit in New Delhi and ASEAN-India Start-up Festival and Hackathon etc.
We are also actively working to strengthen connectivity and various projects are being undertaken in this regard. India and ASEAN have proposed seamless connectivity – physical, institutional and people-to people, work on which is under way at a rapid pace. India has progressed on the physical connectivity with ASEAN through the Trilateral Highway and its extension to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Other connectivity projects include the Kaladan Multimodal Transport project, Rhi-Tiddim road project etc. between India’s Northeast and Myanmar, which is the gateway to ASEAN. We have an annual ASEAN-India ICT Work Plan for taking forward cooperation in ICT sector. India has progressed rapidly on creating broadband connectivity with ASEAN through laying down of optic fibers and through proposed GPON broadband project.
- The Indian Diaspora is an important part of Southeast Asia’s diversity and a strong bridge between India and ASEAN. What steps are being taken by the government of India to promote people-to-people contact with ASEAN member states?
People-to-people connectivity is high on India-ASEAN agenda. A diasporaspecific event viz. Prabasi Bhartiya Diwas was celebrated at Singapore in January, 2018 as an activity to commemorate 25th Anniversary of ASEAN-India Dialogue Relations.
Indian Mission to ASEAN organized outreach programs such as ASEAN India Family Fun Run, with participation of over 1500 people of Indian origin, for spreading the awareness of close cultural linkages between India and the people of South-east Asia. An important component of ASEAN India connect is the shared threads of culture and civilization. Under the Act East Policy, India is laying special significance to strengthening these linkages and has held in the recent past two conferences on ASEAN-India Cultural and Civilizational Links. Several projects on people-to-people connectivity are held annually to increase interaction between India and ASEAN Community including convening annual meetings of ASEAN India Network of Think Tanks (AINTT), Exchange of Parliamentarians, ASEAN India Media Exchange Programme, Students Exchange Programme, Farmers Exchange Programme etc. Read more