India’s ‘Look East policy’ of the 1990s to cultivate deeper integrated economic ties with Southeast Asia transformed into the ‘Act East policy’ of 2014 to demonstrate a strategic shift in the region from an ‘Asia-Pacific’ dominated narrative to the ‘Indo-Pacific’ paradigm. ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), is in the centrality of the Indo-Pacific region and India as a significant global actor in the international space, the engagement between them is of immense significance for a rules-based order in the region. The invitation of all the ten ASEAN leaders to the Indian Republic Day celebrations of 2018 sent a firm diplomatic message. It was also bolstered by the new blueprint laid by Prime Minister Modi in the 2019 India-ASEAN summit for multi-sectoral linkages between the countries to increase trade and economic growth.
Though the 2009 India-ASEAN FTA (Free Trade Agreement) aided in the development of global value chains and supply chain networks, the establishment of ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015 is a momentous step in an integrated market. The Regional Comprehensive Partnership Agreement (RCEP) was seen as a game-changer in the regional economic framework. But the trajectory of India-ASEAN relations in the wake of India’s decision as to not join RCEP in 2019 owing to domestic compulsions, remains to be seen. The approach of India in dealing with issues bilaterally with the member countries rather than in the multilateral forum of ASEAN is bound to be the norm in the coming years. There is a fillip in the espousal of the subregional initiatives as compared to the regional strategy. With the completion of 25 years of India-ASEAN relations in 2017, a new reinvigorated BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) can be seen. But the lack of physical connectivity in the regional intersection between South Asia and Southeast Asia is proving to be a major hiccup in the integration of global value chains for greater economic integration. Although there are various measures such as Mekong Ganga Cooperation, BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) Kolkata-Kunming car rally to boost the measures, the ground-based evidence shows a different reality. The Kaladan Multimodal Project, India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway extending into the Asian Highway Network are involved in advancing the infrastructure in the Northeast part of India with the Southeast region. To leverage the spoils of the Indian ocean, Modi’s Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) with the Sabang port of Indonesia being developed by India, is gaining steam. The full potential of the three Ts of trade, tourism and transit remain to be explored in the two integrated regions but a more sustained push is needed in forging stronger relations for the related three Cs of commerce, culture and connectivity to take a concrete form.
While the lack of physical connectivity is one of the areas to be addressed, cooperation in digital technologies could be another pillar for strengthened relations between the region wherein India’s position as a formidable IT service provider could be exploited. Another significant area to be considered is the institutional form of cooperation between India and the Southeast Asian countries. One example often cited is the existence of opportunities for energy trading between India and Myanmar. In the security sphere, ASEAN countries often look up to the Indian defense mechanisms owing to China’s high-handed military approach in the international seas. The Delhi Declaration of 2019 sends a strong message of Counter-Terrorism cooperation in dealing with the threats posed by the extremist elements in both the regions. India-ASEAN relations analysis should also involve the relevance of multiple actors, both regional and extra-regional, in analyzing the geopolitics of the ‘Indo-Pacific’ paradigm. The strategic triangles context as propounded by Mahmud Ali could be useful in the comprehensive analysis.