While all eyes will be on U.S.-India relations today when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meets with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, New Delhi has also seen some recent advances much closer to home in Southeast Asia.
Last week, in the realm of defense exchanges Vietnam’s Vice Minister of National Defense Do Ba Ty visited India, while Indian Navy Chief Admiral D K Joshi arrived in Malaysia for a five-day trip. ASEAN-India economic and business ties also appeared to get a shot in the arm when the Exim Bank of India opened a branch in Myanmar on September 9, and progress was made on increasing cooperation between India’s Tata Group and two Southeast Asian-based airlines – AirAsia and Singapore Airlines. People-to-people initiatives highlighting New Delhi’s historic cultural affinity to the region have also been in the limelight in recent weeks. Most prominently, this week the Indian embassy in Jakarta is holding a week-long festival to commemorate 100 years of Indian cinema.
The events this week are just latest signs of progress in the ASEAN-India relationship since it was elevated to the level of a “strategic partnership” last December at a special commemorative summit marking two decades of dialogue relations. In 2013, cooperation in several functional areas has increased, including infrastructure connectivity under Brunei’s chairmanship of ASEAN, and the launch of the ASEAN-India Center in New Delhi in June, which will serve as a hub and resource center for policymakers, experts and think tankers interested in advancing the relationship. These steps are geared toward realizing the plan of action to build an ASEAN-India partnership for peace, progress and shared prosperity by 2015, which also coincides with Southeast Asia’s own scheme to realize its ASEAN Community.
Yet for all the flurry of recent activity in ASEAN-India relations, the status of the relationship remains decidedly mixed. Security-wise, for instance, despite the visits of the past week, Indian analysts have recently noted that the Ministry of Defense’s high-level defense diplomacy with ASEAN has been lagged behind the efforts of the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister’s office. Notably, Indian Defense Minister AK Anthony failed to attend two key meetings already this year – the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore and the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM) Plus in Brunei.
Turning to the economic dimension, the definitive conclusion of an ASEAN-India FTA on services has thus far proven elusive, and is now past its August deadline. Meanwhile, overall ASEAN-India trade actually experienced a relative decline in 2012-2013. Indian officials, including Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, have warned that further delays in the services agreement could undermine the joint goal of boosting ASEAN-India trade to US$100 billion by 2015.
Challenges could also delay or disrupt emerging business partnerships and people-to-people schemes. For instance, while Tata’s cooperation with AirAsia and Singapore Airlines has received a lot of media attention, those familiar with India’s aviation market say such ventures would be more productive if they were not hampered by regulations like the 5/20 rule that impose restrictions on carriers trying to fly international. And while Indonesians may be keen watchers of Bollywood movies, Indians familiar with the Indonesian entertainment industry posit that concrete cooperation in that area will only take off if Jakarta removes red tape and offers more incentives for Indian filmmakers.
When Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid addressed the ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Brunei earlier this year, he focused his remarks around the theme of connectivity and its role in enhancing cooperation among institutions and linkages among peoples. Doing that, however, will mean not only building bridges but overcoming barriers and tearing down walls that may obstruct this goal. The ability of both India and ASEAN to do this effectively will be the key to enhancing peace and prosperity not only for the parties themselves, but the Asia-Pacific and the globe more generally.