On November 12, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) upgraded their relationship to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), the highest-tier relationship the grouping has with countries outside the bloc. ASEAN upgraded its relationship with the United States to a CSP on the same day. China and Australia are the other two countries that share a CSP with ASEAN.
The upgrade in India’s status came on the 30th anniversary of it becoming a dialogue partner of the regional grouping.
This is an important landmark in the India-ASEAN relationship, which is an important pillar in India’s Indo-Pacific policy and outreach. The India-ASEAN joint statement highlighted the civilizational linkages, maritime connectivity, and cross-cultural exchanges between India and ASEAN. It highlighted the importance of enhancing cooperation in the digital economy, smart agriculture, and city-to-city partnerships. The two sides will “strengthen healthcare for their people by increasing collaboration in public health, including in areas of research and development and public health emergency,” the joint statement said.
India’s importance as a pharmaceutical hub and the benefits ASEAN can obtain were highlighted by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. of the Philippines, who said the bloc must not miss the “opportunity of having the ‘pharmacy of the world’ as our close neighbor and partner” and urged them to “work closely with India in ensuring that our region has access to a sufficient volume of affordable, high-quality medicines and vaccines.”
ASEAN’s elevation of India’s status to that of a comprehensive strategic partner is a recognition of India’s growing role in the wider Indo-Pacific. It is expected to expand India’s foothold in a geography important to balancing the emerging maritime confluence between the Indian and Pacific oceans.
The CSP agreement is the culmination of a relationship that spans decades. During the Cold War, India preferred to deal bilaterally with Southeast Asian countries than engage ASEAN directly. However, India’s economic liberalization since the early 1990s changed the country’s calculus and New Delhi started making economic overtures to ASEAN.
With the formulation of the Look East Policy in the 1990s, ASEAN became an essential component of India’s outreach to Southeast Asia. The importance of ASEAN became more prominent with the Act East Policy of 2014. India-ASEAN trade has grown by leaps and bounds ever since. The signing of the ASEAN–India Free Trade Agreement in 2014 has contributed significantly to the growth of trade.
India’s total trade with ASEAN was $42.3 billion in the 2021-22 financial year. This is over 10 percent of India’s global trade. The trade between the two blocks was driven by economic complementarities that prevail.
However, as Indian foreign policy scholar Karthik Nachiappan has noted ,”this balance, though, is becoming increasingly tenuous as India’s competitiveness on the services side increases alongside ASEAN’s competitive advantage over trade in goods, especially manufacturing, machineries, and agriculture. Failure to reconcile differences in this trade balance partly contributed to India’s exit from the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP).” And India’s decision to not take part in the RCEP agreement might diminish its economic footprint in Southeast Asia.
India and ASEAN have also tried to address each other’s security gaps, especially with regard to maritime security, which has formed a key plank of ASEAN–India security discussions.
Since it adopted its Look East policy, India has been building its military capabilities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI), an island chain that is scattered across the Bay of Bengal. The headquarters of India’s only Tri-Service Theatre Command is located at ANI’s capital, Port Blair, and the Andaman and Nicobar Command is playing a significant role in India’s projection of power not only eastward through the Malacca Strait in the South China Sea but beyond, to East Asia and the Pacific Ocean. India’s naval modernization has focused on the perceived threat posed by a rising China. In this context, ASEAN is pivotal to India’s security.
In recent years, with the revival of the Quad and India’s prominent role in it, New Delhi has shown an increasing willingness to work with ASEAN and individual ASEAN states on defense matters.
Parallel to its involvement in the Quad, Delhi has been trying to come up with a viable maritime strategy for the Indo-Pacific. In April 2019, the Ministry of External Affairs established a new Indo-Pacific Wing to bring policy on the Indo-Pacific, including maritime security, blue economy, disaster management and connectivity, under one umbrella. In September 2020, it created an Oceania division to cover India’s relations with the Quad group of countries, ASEAN, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).
These two institutional initiatives were flanked by Prime Minister Modi’s announcement of the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI). This initiative is aimed at furthering India’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean and creating a pathway for India across the Indo-Pacific as the IPOI aims to build on the existing regional architecture and mechanisms like the Quad, IORA and ASEAN to bolster maritime security.
Several ASEAN states, such as Vietnam and the Philippines have been willing to collaborate with India on the IPOI, and ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific seems to tally with the IPOI’s key pillars including maritime security, maritime ecology and resources, capacity building and resource sharing, disaster risk reduction and management, science, technology and academic cooperation, and trade connectivity.
Therefore, synergies do exist for both India and ASEAN to allow both parties to undertake mutually accepted policy actions to improve regional security.
Over the past few decades, ASEAN has considered China as its primary economic partner and the U.S. as its primary security guarantor. This has been at the heart of the ASEAN balance, which underpinned the stability that had led to impressive regional economic growth.
However, in recent years, due to aggressive efforts by the United States to isolate China globally and prevent it from accessing and/or developing key technologies, and China’s robust challenge of U.S. hegemony, this balance has become increasingly difficult to maintain.
Whatever misgivings and apprehensions ASEAN countries may have regarding China, Beijing’s role as their main economic partner will only grow in the coming years. China has been ASEAN’s largest trading partner for 13 years in a row, and ASEAN has become China’s largest trading partner since 2020. Recently China announced the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area Version 3.0 at the East Asia Cooperation Leaders’ Meetings held in Cambodia. This will serve to boost economic ties further. China has also attempted to boost the Belt and Road Initiative and recently announced several new infrastructure projects in Southeast Asia.
Therefore, while India and the U.S. have achieved CSP status with ASEAN, they will need to do a lot more to match China, especially for India to achieve its military and economic goals in the Indo-Pacific in general and Southeast Asia in particular.