In January 2018, India hosted the leaders of all 10 ASEAN nations at the Republic Day Parade and set a historic milestone in the India-ASEAN partnership. India’s ties with South East Asia stretch back to more than two thousand years. The symbols of our shared cultural heritage and the Indian civilization are spread across the entire ASEAN region. Today, India-ASEAN partnership has gone beyond economic and cultural links, the formalization process of which started in 1992 Singapore Summit. Growing from dialogue partners to strategic partners, India has a growing economic, diplomatic and security partnership. There are 30 dialogue mechanisms between India and ASEAN, including an annual summit and seven ministerial dialogues.
India, the world’s fastest-growing major economy and a new frontier of global opportunities is an admirer of ASEAN’s own progress too and has always believed that ASEAN has a unique potential to contribute for the larger interests of the world beyond it. The ASEAN nations have an opportunity to become an integral partner in the New India’s transformation journey and to pursue higher aspirations together.
The developments of the last four years under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Act East Policy’ suggest that ASEAN countries are ready to participate in India’s vision of ‘Collective Prosperity.’
Myanmar shares a geostrategic land and a maritime border with India which includes a 1,640-km-long border with India’s four northeastern states – Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh. Prime Minister Modi calls Myanmar “a land bridge that connects India with Southeast Asia.” In 2016, during the visit of then President of Myanmar Htin Kyaw to India both countries signed some key agreements for the construction of 69 bridges on the Tamu-Kalewa section of the India-Myanmar-Thailand (IMT) highway and improvements on the Kalewa-Yargi section1. The IMT highway has the potential to transform the economic landscape of the entire region as it will connect the Moreh in India’s Manipur state to Mae Sot in Thailand via Myanmar.
In India’s physical connectivity vision for the ASEAN, the role of Myanmar is crucial. Some of the other key connectivity projects between India and Myanmar are: Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project, the Rhi-Tiddim Road Project, and Border Haats etc.The Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project was launched to create a Multimodal transit transport system which involves connecting the eastern Indian seaport of Kolkata with Sittwe seaport in Rakhine State, Myanmar by sea (shipping route of 539 km). In Myanmar, it will then link Sittwe seaport to Paletwa via the Kaladan riverboat route (inland water transport route of 158 km), and then from Paletwa by road to Mizoram state in Northeast India2. Also, the extension projects of IMT trilateral highway to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam are being planned and consultations in this direction are going on.
India’s participation in Myanmar’s socio-economic development is significant and it is widely appreciated by the Myanmar government. Whether its infrastructure development, agriculture research or human resources capacity building assistance, India stands with Myanmar in their endeavors to stability and growth. In 2017, India committed to assisting in the Rakhine State Development programme and in December 2018, during the President Ram Nath Kovind’s visit to Myanmar, we handed over the first 50 units of prefabricated houses built in Rakhine State. India’s assistance portfolio to Myanmar is at present worth over $1.73 billion.
The trade between both sides has doubled over the last decade. Some leading Indian oil and gas companies are in the process of opening their offices in Myanmar. In September 2017, Assam based Numaligarh Refinery signed an agreement3 with the Parami Energy Group of Myanmar for supplying petroleum products through Moreh-Tamu land border to Northern and Western Myanmar. In the month of December 2018, an Enterprise India show was held in Myanmar, in which a number of Indian SMEs also took part.
Defence and Security cooperation is a crucial pillar in the strategic partnership between India and Vietnam. In May 2015, Defence Ministers of the two countries signed a “Joint Vision Statement on India-Vietnam Defence Relations -2015-2020”. An agreement on cooperation between the Coast Guards of the two countries was also signed for mutual crime prevention efforts and the development of transnational cooperation. India’s National Security Advisor AjitDoval has affirmed that India would do all it can to assist Vietnam in defence and security domains, particularly in military technology, intelligence, personnel training and cyber security4. During PM Modi’s visit to Vietnam in September 2016, India and Vietnam formally upgraded their relationship to ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.’ The upgraded partnership is designed to provide a new direction to the bilateral cooperation. Both countries have signed another important agreement for Inter-Governmental Framework for the Exploration of Outer Space for Peaceful Purposes. PM Modi announced a new line of credit US$500 million to Vietnam for the procurement of defence equipment5.
Vietnam wants to build up a strong deterrence against China’s rise and its aggressive moves in the South China Sea and India’s defence capabilities can provide good support to Vietnam’s defence needs. Indian Armed forces are cooperating with Vietnamese Armed Forces particularly the Navy, in the process of capacity building. India has already been providing assistance to Vietnam’s navy through training to operate the new Russian-built submarines.
In the last four years, a number of significant bilateral visits took place between the two countries including the recent visit of President of India, Shri Ram Nath Kovind to Vietnam. Apart from defense, other emerging areas of cooperation between India and Vietnam are: energy, agriculture, agro-processing, textile, biotech, pharmaceuticals, minerals, marine and wood products etc. The bilateral trade between India and Vietnam has increased about ten folds in ten years and last year it touched US$ 12.8 billion, which makes India one of the top trading partners of Vietnam.
In September 2016, PM Modi participated in the 11th East Asia and 14th India-ASEAN summit in Vientiane, Laos. On the sidelines of the summit, PM Modi held bilateral engagements too which included talks with Laotian Prime Minister ThonglounSisoulith. Both sides have agreed that the bilateral trade between India and Laos is lower than its real potential and there is a great scope for the promotion of new trade opportunities among the business fraternity of both sides. In November 2018, the 9th Joint Commission Meeting6 on Bilateral Cooperation between the Laos and India was held in Vientiane, Lao PDR, in which several avenues to enhance trade were discussed. India’s engagement in Laos is centered on agriculture, irrigation, power, education and human resources capacity development through trainings.
India is facilitating the implementation of irrigation projects in Xayaboury, Vientiane and Savannakhet provinces, through a $30.94 million Line of Credit and has approved $72.44 million of fund for setting up a university of agriculture and training centres in Champasack province of Laos. India has also extended Duty Free Tariff Preference Schemes7 to Lao PDR to encourage the exports of goods from Lao PDR to India.
Thailand is one the key trading partners of India in ASEAN. The bilateral trade between India and Thailand is on an upward trajectory. In June 2016, during the visit of Prime Minister of Thailand to India8, the first India-Thailand Business Forum came up with recommendations to scale up business and investment opportunities between the two countries. Thai investment in manufacturing and infrastructure initiatives of India are quite significant. Apart from skill development, tourism, and film production there are some dedicated efforts going on to forge sister state/city relations between Assam and Chiang Mai as well as Surat and Surat Thani.
India and Cambodia share strong cultural and traditional links. Under ‘Act East Policy’ a satisfactory pace of development is going on to align this relation with the contemporary realities. India’s role in human resource development and capacity building initiatives in Cambodia is significant and now the focus is on moving towards infrastructural development, conservation and the preservation of historical monuments. During Prime Minister of Cambodia Samdech Hun Sen’s India visit in January 2018, the two countries signed four key agreements to enhance bilateral cooperation and to deal with mutual challenges of human trafficking9. India granted a $36.92 million line of credit to facilitate the development of Stung SvaHab water resource development project. PM Modi has also announced the setting up of a centre of excellence related to Information Technology in Cambodia to train Cambodian youths. India is actively involved in the social development of Cambodia through Quick Impact Projects under the Mekong Ganga Cooperation initiative. PM Modi has decided to increase the number of annual Quick Impact Projects from five to ten and established a project development fund of Rs. 500 crore to expand industry and business links10.
Malaysia is the third largest trading partner of India in ASEAN and a key investment partner in the region. The two-way commercial engagements between both countries are traditionally strong which further strengthened with the signing of a bilateral comprehensive economic cooperation agreement in 2011, revised double taxation avoidance agreement in 2012, and the MoU on Customs Cooperation signed in 2013. Some Malaysian companies are actively participating in the infrastructure projects in different states of India. And other than the Indian businesses, there is a strong presence of Indian community in Malaysia too which plays the role of a significant bridge between both nations.
In the last few years, the bilateral trade between India and Malaysia has increased more than two folds and reached close to $13 billion in 2017. There are growing synergies between the infrastructure companies of India and their Malaysian counterparts. In 2017 during the visit of former Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib Razak, Indian and Malaysian infrastructure companies signed business deals of worth US$36 billion, of which projects of $32.13 billion will be implemented in Malaysia while $3.86 billion worth of projects are planned to be executed in India. According to Malaysia’s Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB), as of 2017, Malaysian companies have completed 53 highway and road projects worth RM 9.3 billion (US$ 2.84 billion) in India11.
Transforming India offers tremendous opportunities for infra players of Malaysia, and for Indian construction companies, Malaysia is a crucial partner in the South East Asian market. According to some official stats, around 120 Indian companies, including 61 Indian joint ventures, 7 Indian Public Sector Undertakings, and 60 Indian IT companies are operating in or from Malaysia. The new areas of private sector cooperation between both sides are textiles, pharmaceuticals, glass containers, automobile associated industries, chemicals, biotechnology, healthcare, etc. In future through some active bilateral business forums such as Malaysia-India business council and India-Malaysia CEOs’ Forum, these commercial exchanges are expected to further accelerate.
Indonesia is one of India’s key neighbours in the region with which it shares a continuity of culture and civilization traditions. Today, both countries are focusing on enhancing bilateral trade exchanges too. The 2nd meeting of India-Indonesia CEO forum which was held in May 2018 yielded some concrete outcomes such as setting up of Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) office in Jakarta. In March 2018, the first ever India-Indonesia Infrastructure Forum meeting was organized by the Indian embassy in Jakarta in which a high-level delegation of nearly 30 plus Indian CEOs from infrastructure sector were present and some 80 Indonesian infrastructure companies took part. In the month of November 2018, an India-Indonesia Business forum (IIBF) was also held at Port Blair in Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Following the state visit of Indonesian President Joko Widodo to India in December 2016 and the first-ever visit of PM Modi to Indonesia in May 2018, some successful bilateral ministerial-level defence and energy sector related exchanges also took place and the frequency of these exchanges suggest a mutual desire to enhance ties12. For many years both countries are an active partner in naval exercises/patrolling and now there is a shared desire to deepen these maritime engagements in the light of changing dynamics of Indo-Pacific region.
Singapore is India’s leading economic partner and a key global strategic partner. Bilateral relations between India and Singapore have a strong cultural and commercial background and political relations are based on trust and appreciation for each other’s potential. The economic cooperation between both countries is vibrant and spanned across all priority sectors of two sides. A good number of Indian companies are operating in and from Singapore which makes it India’s crucial source as well as the destination of investment. To further leverage these warm ties India and Singapore have signed the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA).
Singapore is known as the Fintech hub of the world. By keeping the growing global trends of Fintech innovations in mind, PM Modi has established a joint working group of Fintech in which the Monetary Authority of Singapore and Financial Services department of Ministry of Finance, India and other relevant stakeholders of both sides will work together to promote knowledge exchange and cooperation between the Fintech firms. In May 2018, at the ‘Business Innovation and Community’ event in Singapore, PM Modi has launched India’s BHIM, RuPay and SBI app.
The Network for Electronic Transfers of Singapore (NETS) and the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) also signed an agreement to extend Bharat Interface for Money (BHIM) to recognize SGQR (Singapore Quick Response Code) for payments in Singapore. And India’s Unified Payments Interface (UPI) based cross-border remittance app (SBI app) will facilitate the remittances by Indian workers13. The partnership between NETS and NPCI and the launch of Indian digital payment apps in Singapore are some remarkable moves toward internationalization and branding of Indian digital payment frameworks.
Singapore is a global centre of tech and innovation and it is the only country in ASEAN with which India’s exchanges are designed around the changing needs of our time. After Fintech, Smart Cities is another futuristic area where this partnership is going well. Singapore government’s Centre for Liveable Cities in partnership with the Town and Country Planning Organization of India has launched a programme to train 100 Indian officials in Singapore for effective planning and execution of India’s Smart Cities Mission. During PM Modi’s recent Singapore visit at the “India and Singapore: Stepping into Future” business event, some 13 agreements related to investment promotion, start-ups, FinTech, artificial intelligence, data analytics, and water management etc. were signed. The Indian government’s India-Singapore Entrepreneurship Bridge (InSpreneur) initiative held two editions in 2018 and now Start-up Singapore has announced the Singapore-India Incubation Programme which aims to provide exposure and support for emerging start-ups keen to explore both markets.
On 27th Jan 2019, a Philippine church got bombed by terrorists, in which more than 20 civilians were killed and many got brutally injured. Dealing with the ever-growing threats of radical Islamic terrorism is one of the mutual challenges for India and all ASEAN nations. On several occasions, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invited South East Asian nations to join hands in the fight against terrorism. The Defence and Security cooperation are the focal points of discussion in India-Philippines dialogues. The frequency of bilateral exchanges between both nations, which started with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the Philippines to attend ASEAN and EAS Summits in the month of November 2017, has substantially increased. In terms of trade, India is exploring opportunities for investments in Philippine markets in the sector of pharmaceutical, information technology, energy, and transportation, which in turn will lead to generation of thousands of local jobs. The India-Philippines bilateral trade stands at nearly $2 billion in 2016-17, while India’s exports amounted to $1.487 billion and imports to $494 million.
For more than five decades Indian companies and Filipino joint ventures are thriving in the Philippines such as India’s Aditya Birla Group through its Indo Phil Textile Mills and the Ispat Group which owns and operate Philippines’s largest plant with an investment of $254 million. Recently GMR group Ltd joined hands with a local company Megawide for airport maintenance and upgrading related projects. Other Indian automobile giants such as Tata Motors and Mahindra, and IT/ITES companies like Wipro, TCS, L&T Infotech, Infosys, Tech Mahindra etc. are active in the Philippines markets. The Indian Pharma majors like Dabur Pharma, Lupin Ltd., Torrent Pharma, Zydus Cadila, and Claris Lifesciences have also set up a liaison office to promote their products in the Philippines market. And Kalpataru and Kamani Engineering Corporation are engaged in the transmission line projects in the Mindanao regions of the Philippines. A couple of Joint Working Groups have also been set up to explore two-way trade and investment opportunities14.
The bilateral trade between India and Brunei has more than doubled over the last decade and stood at $504 billion in 2016-17. In the last four years, some efforts have been made to explore mutually beneficial trade opportunities through regular exchanges. In September 2016, Indian Chamber of commerce, Kolkata organized a ‘Buyer Seller Meet and Exhibition’ in Brunei, in which Indian companies from diverse sectors including heavy engineering, electronics, education, textiles, and handicrafts participated15. Apart from defence and security, energy is one of the most dominant themes of our bilateral exchanges with Brunei. In the month of November 2016, the Indian government has organized a high-level delegation meeting comprising of the foreign, trade, energy, and finance ministers of Brunei with the business leaders and their Indian ministerial counterparts in India, which yielded some positive outcomes.
In his op-ed piece “ASEAN-India: Shared Values, Common Destiny” which was published simultaneously on 26th January 2018 in all the leading dailies of the ASEAN member nations, Prime Minister Modi has said: “Indians have always looked East to see the nurturing sunrise and the light of opportunities. Now, as before, the East, or the Indo-Pacific Region, will be indispensable to India’s future and our common destiny.”
In the past, in an environment of turbulence and hostility, some responsible regional players of South East Asia laid the foundation of ASEAN, and united 10 countries for a common vision of economic growth and security. Today ASEAN can again play a defining role for a stable, prosperous and peaceful future of the region and the world.
1 India- Myanmar Joint Statement during the visit of the President of Myanmar to India (29 August 2016)
2 Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project-Status Note, Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region
3 Numaligarh Refinery becomes Myanmar’s sixth fuel retailer, published at The Hindu Business Line, on 10 January
4 Achievement: India-Vietnam Defence and Security Cooperation by Brig Vinod Anand, published at VIF on May 12, 2017
5 India offers $500 million defense credit as Vietnam seeks arms boost by Ho Binh Minh published at REUTERS on September 3, 2016
6 Agreed Minutes of the Ninth Joint Commission Meeting on Bilateral Cooperation between India and Lao PDR (November 23, 2018)
https://www.mea.gov.in/bilateral-documents.htm?dtl30627Agreed_Minutes_of_the_Ninth_Joint_ Commission_Meeting_on_Bilateral_Cooperation_between_India_and_Lao_ PDR_November_23_2018
7 Preferential Market Access: India’s Duty Free Tariff Preference Scheme for LDCs published on December 28, 2016
8 India-Thailand Joint Statement during the visit of Prime Minister of Thailand to India
9 India-Cambodia Joint Statement during State Visit of Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia to India (January 27, 2018)
10 Press Statement by PM Modi with PM of Cambodia Hun Sen published on January 27, 2018
11 Joint Statement of the India – Malaysia CEO’s Forum, New Delhi (March 31, 2017) published on April 01, 2017
12 India-Indonesia Joint Statement during visit of Prime Minister to Indonesia (May 30, 2018)
13 India-Singapore Joint Statement during visit of Prime Minister to Singapore (June 01, 2018)
14 India-Philippines Bilateral Brief, Embassy of India, Manila, Philippines
15 INDIA-BRUNEI BILATERAL BRIEF, High Commission of India, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam
(Ms. Devsena Mishra is a promoter of advanced technologies, startup ecosystem and the
Indian government’s business and technology related initiatives like Digital India, Make in India,
Smart Cities, and Startup India. Views expressed are personal.)
(This article is carried in the print edition of January-February 2019 issue of India Foundation Journal.)