India’s ASEAN asset in Indo-Pacific

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By Manish Anand

New Delhi, June 16: The 10-member ASEAN block of the South-east Asian countries has been India’s first partner when New Delhi woke up to the new economy when the balance of payment crisis unfolded in the early 1990s.

Three decades later when India aspires to drive the Indo-Pacific strategic cooperation, ASEAN is more relevant for New Delhi than ever being the group of nations with whom the country has deep historical and cultural ties.

First the emperor Ashoka, who sent the Buddhist emissaries to the South-east Asian countries, and then the mighty Cholas built bridges of connectivity, of culture and heritage and also trade.

The people in the ASEAN countries are as aware of the Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata as anyone in India. The people there have adopted the tales of the two epics in their cultures, hosting stages regularly and organizing the festivals in their names.

Thirty years of partnership between India and ASEAN on Thursday was marked by New Delhi hosting the special ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers’ meeting. The ministers of the 10 countries also called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar and the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval were also present during the meeting.

The special meeting of the foreign ministers was held close on the heels of the Tokyo Quad in-person meeting, which was attended by the US President Joe Biden, Modi, the newly-elected Australian PM Anthony Albanese and the host, the Japanese PM Fumio Kishida.

The Tokyo summit witnessed Biden piloting the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework initiative, with clear intent to match the Chinese deep pocket funding of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), besides the USD 50 billion infrastructure fund.

The undercurrent at the Tokyo Quad summit was the growing urgency on the part of the big economies to build resilient global supply chain, which in the times of the pandemic Covid-19 and China’s shutting the doors on the world, set off economic stress worldwide.

Jaishankar on Thursday eloquently shed Indian perspective on the importance of the ASEAN, saying “the relationship between India and ASEAN has witnessed a transformation over the past 30 year. The story of our contemporary partnership began from the Singapore summit in 1992. PM Modi’s announcement to upgrade ‘Look East’ to ‘Act East’ in 2014 and the participation of all the heads of the states from ASEAN in the 2018 for Republic Day celebrations affirmed India’s ties with the bloc.”

Jaishankar affirmed the centrality of ASEAN in the Indo-Pacific region, while also backing the unity of the block.

He also forthrightly said that India’s Indo-Pacific ocean initiative and ASEAN’s outlook for Indo-pacific hold out the framework for the region.

Jaishankar’s reference to “when the world confronts multiple stress test” indeed pointed out to the fluid world order situation, as India strives to play the role of a stabilizer in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Thursday meeting of the foreign ministers has also come ahead of the G7 meeting later this month in Germany for which Modi has been invited, as has been the annual practice since 2018.

The development world is indeed seeking out India after New Delhi demonstrated willingness to be a partner of trust and reliability by making timely interventions with the Covid-19 vaccines, medicines, and subsequently with wheat after the Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered the food shortages globally.

While the ASEAN block is hopeful that India will handle its economy well to scale up in the size, New Delhi would be keen for partnerships to play the role of catalysts.

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