The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Cooperation with the ASEAN will stabilize India’s relations with China

The prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has just concluded his participation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Bali, Indonesia, as well as his visit to Thailand. This has been the first visit by an Indian prime minister to the Asean countries after a gap of more than a decade. The last visit was by P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1993. An overview of the historical background of India’s relations with the Asean would be a relevant context in which to assess the outcome of Vajpayee’s participation in the Asean summit in Indonesia and the bilateral visit to Thailand.

India had shown keen interest in joining the Asean during the second half of Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure (between 1987-89). The Indian overtures were received with some reticence at that point of time because leaders of the Asean, more importantly the bureaucrats who shaped the terms of reference of the Asean, retained memories of India refusing to participate in the Asean in the mid-Sixties when the Asean countries had invited India to join the forum. India’s refusal to respond to the invitation was basically because of the major Asean countries being closely allied with the United States of America in the Vietnam war. The South East Asian Treaty Organization was still an operational alliance.

With the benefit of hindsight one can state that in the mid-Sixties, we should have compartmentalized, to the extent possible, our economic interests on the one hand and our geo-political orientations on the other. We should have become a member of the Asean in the beginning itself. Unfortunately, we didn’t.

It was only in the second half of 1991 that the change in global power equations created conditions conducive to India joining the Asean. The disintegration of the Soviet Union accompanied by the fading away of the strategic and military content of US-led alliances in southeast Asia helped matters. The economic liberalization, restructuring and reforms programmes initiated in India by the Narasimha Rao government qualitatively changed circumstances, enhancing possibilities of India joining the Asean, and dialogue was re-initiated with the Asean governments by the government of India. The discussions were held with individual members of the Asean as well as with the Asean secretariat. Narasimha Rao’s discussions with the Indonesian president, Suharto, in 1992 and the Malaysian prime minister, Mahathir Mohammed, earlier in November 1991, (on the margins of the non-aligned and G-15 summit meetings) helped India’s initiative, and by June-July 1992, India received formal confirmation from the Asean secretariat that the Asean was ready to associate India with the organization as a sectoral dialogue partner. Governments of the US and Japan were supportive of the Indian initiative regarding the Asean, given the adjustments which India made in its foreign policy after the end of the Cold War.

India started functioning as a sectoral dialogue partner with the Asean from 1993 onwards. The dialogue focussed on structuring economic and technological cooperation between the Asean countries and India. Progress made, though slow, was satisfactory enough, for India to become a full dialogue partner of the Asean during the last months of Narasimha Rao’s tenure as prime minister in 1996.

Coming to the progress made in Indo-Asean cooperation, India desired participation in the political and security arrangements of the Asean, given the Asean geo-strategic importance to India. The Asean leaders who were reluctant to accept India in the security arrangements, namely, the Asean Regional Forum, in the initial stages primarily because they did not like the security forum to be converted into an arena of India-Pakistan confrontations. The period between 1996 and 1998 saw the slowing down in drift in Indo-Asean internationals. The economic crisis in the Asean countries in the late Nineties and the uncertainties of India’s economic reforms policies contributed to the phenomenon.

The situation changed for the better once the Vajpayee government stabilized itself. India’s nuclear tests created some hiccups but they were overcome because by the time Vajpayee came into power, the Asean accepted India as a part of the ARF. The then foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, was able to utilize participation in ARF meetings to explain the rationale of India’s nuclear weaponization. The last four years saw incremental exchanges between the government of India and the Asean government in the spheres of economy, investment, technology, infrastructural cooperation and so on.

Vajpayee’s visit to the Asean is a significant culmination of this process. The results of the visit are based on the significance of the Asean to India and vice versa. The Asean countries constitute a market of nearly half a billion people. And combined with the billion-strong population of India, cooperative arrangements between the Asean and India would cover a population of 1.5 billion. China being a participant in the Asean raises the demographic dimension of the cooperation to nearly three billion people, constituting half or two-thirds of the population of the world.

The Asean countries and India straddle all the major trade routes between the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans on the one hand and the Pacific Ocean on the other. The air, land and trade routes pass through this region which are of vital importance to India. Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia and Myanmar are endowed with energy resources. Subcontinental India and the Asean are rich in agriculture, raw materials and natural resources. The positive impact of broad-based economic cooperation has important potential.

Security dimensions of cooperation between India and the Asean are equally important. India and the Asean countries face the common threat and share concerns about international terrorism. Countries stretching from the Philippines in the southeast to the western frontiers of India have been subjected to terrorist violence and religious extremism, particularly so since 1999-2000. Drug trafficking, piracy at sea and smuggling are common threats which India and the Asean countries face. The strategic and security importance of India and the Asean region results in the major powers of the world like the US, Russia, China and Japan being interested in the stability of the region.

These were the considerations which underpinned Vajpayee’s brief for the Asean summit. Three agreements were signed at the end of the Asean deliberations on October 8. First, a framework agreement for the creation of an Indo-Asean free trade area by the year 2011. Second, an agreement to cooperate to counter terrorism, and the third was India becoming a signatory to the Asean treaty of amity and cooperation. The Indian delegation also put forward significant suggestions which would be process- ed. First, for creating a broad Asean economic community: the membership would consist of 10 countries of the Asean, China, Republic of Korea, Japan and India. Then there was the suggestion for open skies arrangement by which all designated airlines of the Asean countries can have free daily services to New Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai, without going through the hassles of individual bilateral civil aviation agreements. India also offered airlines of the Asean countries access to 18 tourist destinations in India.

The movement towards creation of a free trade area will commence by the winter of 2004, with the exchange of tariff concessions and elimination of tariff on an agreed common list of commodities on a reciprocal basis. These are arrangements to be fully in place by 2006. An agreement on the campaign against terrorism identifies areas of cooperation.

The broad features of emerging trends in Indo-Asean cooperation are the increase in trade with the Asean region to a value of nearly $ 12 billion. Vajpayee has added the offer of information technology cooperation which has been accepted by the Asean countries. The second feature is the tangible increase in political and strategic interaction between India and the Asean countries. Vajpayee’s visit to Thailand would also contribute to cooperation in two important fields: countering drug-trafficking and in stabilizing relations with Myanmar.

In overall terms, the cooperation with the Asean will contribute to a stabilization of India’s relations with China, to India overcoming limitations of the lack of progress in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and thirdly, the agreements reached may contribute to possibilities of cooperation, between not only India and the Asean, but also between the Asean and India’s other important neighbours, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

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