To mark the 25th anniversary of the India-ASEAN partnership, the theme of the Delhi Dialogue 2017 (held from July 4-5) was “India and ASEAN : Charting the Course for the next 25 years.” This track 1.5 forum, which commenced in 2009, saw discussions on a number of economic, strategic, and sociocultural issues pertaining to India-ASEAN relations. The dialogue was organized by India’s Ministry of External Affairs, in collaboration with a number of think tanks and Chambers of Commerce.
Ties between India and ASEAN have grown by leaps and bounds, ever since the economic reforms introduced in 1991 and the introduction of the Look East Policy in the 1990s. The current government, which has renamed Look East as Act East, has also stressed improving ties with Southeast Asia.
What’s especially interesting this year was the presence of Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal in the inaugural session of the Delhi Dialogue. That gave a clear message that states are the participants in India’s ties with Southeast Asia.
Commenting on his state’s role in the Act East Policy, the Assam chief minister stated:
Guwahati is no longer just the Gateway to Northeast India. We see it as the Gateway to Southeast Asia. We have already started working to put the most modern infrastructures in Guwahati, be it air connectivity to ASEAN countries, a most modern international airport, world class trade center, and space for consulate offices of Southeast Asian nations.
There has been a greater thrust on Northeast India’s participation in ties with Southeast Asia in recent years.On more than one occasion, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken about the role of northeastern states in India’s Act East Policy. There have also been efforts to expedite important projects like the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway, as well as the Kaladan multi nodal project. The government has also made concerted efforts to improve infrastructure at Moreh (one of the trading points with Myanmar in Manipur, Zokhawathar in Mizoram being the other one), and road networks are being built to connect Imphal with Tamu. Important stretches of the Kaladan project (such as the 300-km road from state capital Aizawl to Tuipang in southern Mizoram) as well as the trilateral highway are being accorded high priority.
Thanks to such efforts, trade between India and Myanmar has already witnessed an upswing. In response to a Parliamentary question, Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman stated that trade between India and Myanmar through the Indian northeast grew from Rs. 775 million ($12 million) in 2013-2014 to Rs. 1.445 billion ($22 million) in 2015-16.
What is often forgotten, however, is the role of other areas of India in the Act East policy.
Southern India has enjoyed historical trade and maritime links with Southeast Asia ever since the time of the Chola Kingdom. These ties were further strengthened through the presence of a strong Indian diaspora, as well as efforts by southern Indian states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Karnataka to strengthen ties with Southeast Asia, especially Singapore and Malaysia.
In a strong reiteration of ties between Tamil Nadu and Malaysia, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak paid a visit to Chennai, where he met with Tamil film star Rajnikanth, whose film Kabali had been shot in Malaysia. Indians constitute 7 percent of the total population of Malaysia, and a large chunk of that Indian population consists of Tamils.
Meanwhile, the state of Andhra Pradesh has been proactively building up its ties with Southeast Asia as well. Specifically, the state is reaching out to Singapore for the construction of Amaravati, the planned state capital. In May 2017, a Singapore consortium consisting of Ascendas-Singbridge Pvt. Ltd. and Sembcorp Development Ltd. signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Amaravati Development Corporation (ADC) for developing a start-up area of nearly 7 square kilometers.
Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu has also been hardselling Vishakhapatnam as an IT, educational, and tourism hub. Naidu has been emphasizing that the stretch from Vishakhapatnam to Kakinada in his state will emerge as a logistics hub. While addressing industrialists from Vishakhapatnam, in the presence of a Singaporean team, the Andhra Pradesh chief minister stated, “We already have three functioning ports in the region – Visakhapatnam, Gangavaram and Kakinada. Another port is coming up in the East Godavari district near Kakinada and we are planning another one at Nakkapalli in Visakhapatnam district.”
Andhra Pradesh is reaching out to Malaysia as well. While referring to the role of his state in the Act East Policy, Naidu said, “As part of the Look East Policy, Andhra Pradesh is building strong, resilient and sustainable partnerships with everyone and Malaysia is a key partner for us.”
During the Malaysian prime minister’s visit to India an MOU was signed between the Andhra Pradesh Economic Development Board and MIGHT Technology Nurturing Sdn. Bhd (MTN) for building a technology park.
Similarly, Telangana has been seeking investment in infrastructure and reached out to Malaysia. The chief minister of Telangana’s first visit abroa was to Malaysia in 2014. A delegation from Penang has also visited Telangana and offered support in strengthening ties with the province of Penang in areas like manufacturing and skill development.
Of late, eastern India and Southeast Asia too have been strengthening ties. Bihar has been seeking to draw Buddhist tourists from Southeast Asia to Bodhgaya, (though a number of logistical and infrastructural issues need to be addressed if the state is to achieve its goal). Educational linkages with scholars and institutions in East Asia and Southeast Asia can also be enhanced through Nalanda University.
Also in eastern India, Odisha has long had historical ties with Indonesia. Every year in the month of November, “Bali Yatra” is celebrated to commemorate the voyages of traders from Odisha to Bali, Java, Sumatra, and Sri Lanka for trade. The traders used to sail on big boats called Boita. Alok Ranjan Mishra, in an article for Orissa Review, points out:
[The] “Boita Bandana” or “See off” ceremony of the merchants in day of Kartika Purnima is observed throughout Odisha. On this day the women folk of Odisha sail small boats made out of cork, colored paper, and banana bark lit by lamp on all available water… in the same fashion in which the ladies of yore used to send their men on voyages wishing them well.
Seeking to capitalize on this historical link, in November 2016, an Indonesia-Kalinga dialogue was organized. Participants included Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Pattanaik and Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan. Apart from rekindling historic ties, participants spoke of the need of greater air connectivity between Odisha and Indonesia (such as a possible flight between Bhubaneswar and Jakarta or Bali), while also strengthening economic linkages though Paradip Port.
In western India, states like Rajasthan have been seeking to learn from Singapore in skill development and tourism. During his visit to India in October 2016, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong inaugurated the Center of Excellence for Tourism Training at Udaipur’s Sukhadia University in Rajasthan. Singapore has provided financial assistance for trainers at the center. In an article for the Indian Express at the time, Rajasthan’s chief minister noted that “the design, curriculum and pedagogy for the CETT have been drawn up by the world-class Institute of Technical Education, the vocational training arm of the government of Singapore.”
Due to geographical proximity, northeastern states get most of the attention in India’s ties with Southeast Asia. However, it is important not to restrict this relationship merely to the northeast. It is also important to include chief ministers from other parts of India in dialogues with ASEAN, since they are all contributing to furthering not just economic ties, but also people-to-people linkages with ASEAN. Apart from the northeast, parts of southern India and eastern India have historic links as well as strong modern-day diasporas. Soft power, connectivity, and potential economic linkages need to be harnessed effectively and more and more state governments need to become stakeholders in India’s ASEAN outreach.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based policy analyst associated with the Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat.