ASEAN as the ‘central pillar’ of India’s Act East Policy


    In Context

    • Speaking at the 20th ASEAN-India summit in Jakarta, the Indian Prime Minister said that ASEAN is the “central pillar” of India’s Act East Policy and India fully supports the group’s centrality and outlook on the Indo-Pacific.

    About ASEAN

    • Formation & members:
      • On 8 August 1967, five leaders – the Foreign Ministers of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – came together in Bangkok to form ASEAN.
        •  The document that they signed is known as the ASEAN Declaration.  
      • Over the next few decades, five other countries joined them – Brunei Darussalam, Lao PDR, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam
    • ASEAN Declaration:
      • The ASEAN Declaration conveyed the aspiration to further regional cooperation
      • These were about cooperation in the economic, social, cultural, technical, educational and other fields, and in the promotion of regional peace and stability and adherence to the principles of the United Nations Charter. 
      • It stipulated that the Association would be open for participation by all States in the Southeast Asian region subscribing to its aims, principles and purposes.
    • Unity & its symbols:
      • ASEAN today has an anthem, a flag and biannual summits (twice a year) with a rotating chairmanship
      • An example of the focus on unity, its official motto is “One Vision, One Identity, One Community”.
    • Its major pillars that help lay out a blueprint for cooperation are: 
      • Political-Security Community (APSC), 
      • Economic Community (AEC) and 
      • Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).

    India & ASEAN 

    • Relations:
      • The year 2022 also marked the 30th Anniversary of ASEAN-India Dialogue Relations & the 10th anniversary of India’s Strategic Partnership with ASEAN
        • So, the year was designated as the ASEAN-India Friendship Year.
      • India and ASEAN started to hold summits together in 2002 — a decade after the country established formal engagement with the group.
    • Trade:
      • In 2010, a Free Trade Agreement was signed and entered into force between India and ASEAN. 
      • While India was part of negotiations to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in 2020, it ultimately decided not to do so
      • However, in the past eight years, trade has grown in terms of value, barring the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021.
    • ASEAN Plus Six grouping:
      • India is part of the ASEAN Plus Six grouping, which includes China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and Australia.
    • Delhi Dialogue:
      • The ‘Delhi Dialogue’ (DD) mechanism hosted by India annually
      • It is traditionally inaugurated jointly by India and ASEAN at the Foreign Minister’s level.
      • It serves as the main Track 1.5mechanism for our engagement. 

    Significance of ASEAN for India

    • ASEAN led Mechanisms:
      • India shares a deep connection with ASEAN and has continued its active engagement in many areas contributing to regional peace and stability, particularly through ASEAN led mechanisms, such as:
        • East Asia Summit.
        • ASEAN Regional Forum.
        • ADMM-Plus. The ADMM Plus is an annual meeting of Defence Ministers of 10 ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries and eight dialogue partner countries – Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Russia and the United States.
    • Central to India’s Act East policy:
      • ASEAN is central to India’s Act East policy, which focuses on the extended neighbourhood in the Asia-Pacific region. 
      • Indo-Pacific is an interconnected geography where ASEAN is at its core. 
      • Both ASEAN and India believe that openness, inclusiveness, rules-based order, freedom of navigation and peaceful settlement of disputes lie at the very core of the Indo-Pacific. 
    • Maritime Connectivity & Security:
      • India is surrounded by the Indian Ocean and ASEAN Countries have borders with Indo-Pacific waters. 
        • This opens up plenty of opportunities for India and other countries to work on maritime security, trade, and better supply chain networks.
      • India is consciously working with ASEAN towards a vision of an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific in tandem with initiatives such as 
        • The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI)
        • To ensure Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR)
      • India and some of the ASEAN countries are also members of the recently launched Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF).
    • Checks Chinese Dominance: 
      • Maritime cooperation in terms of connectivity, safety and security has gained high attention in the backdrop of China’s advancements in the South China Sea
      • India will gain better positioning against China’s increasing dominating presence in the area.

    ASEAN’s challenges

    • Threat to stability:
      • For a long, the assumption of China as the primary economic partner and the US as the primary security guarantor has been at the heart of the ASEAN balance. 
      • Today, that balance is falling apart and the Russia-Ukraine war has further aggravated this tension. 
      • This sharpening of major power rivalry is threatening the underlying stability on which rested the regional growth and prosperity over the last several decades.
    • No voice on critical regional and global issues:
      • The grouping remains fractured in its response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on managing the US-China contestation, and closer to home on dealing with the military junta in Myanmar and China’s aggression in the South China Sea. 
      • ASEAN will lose its relevance if it continues to be a divided house, unable to forge consensus on critical regional and global issues.

    Way Ahead

    • India will have to level up its engagements significantly in order to remain relevant in a part of the world that is viewed as critical to the future stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific. 
    • Trade and connectivity will be critical in order to enhance its profile in the ASEAN region.
    • India can also develop strong bilateral partnerships with like-minded partners within ASEAN as the grouping continues to struggle with its internal cohesion.


    Daily Mains Question

    [Q] Analyse the significance of ASEAN as the ‘central pillar’ of India’s Act East Policy. What are the challenges faced by the grouping?