India-ASEAN Relations: Growing Convergence
Prof. (Dr) Debasis Bhattacharya

The momentous convergence of strategic interests in India-ASEAN relations over the years has enormously propelled robust cooperation between the two sides on multidimensional issues of mutual interests. The implications of consolidation of India-ASEAN partnership are remarkably perceived towards emboldening the spirit of shared progress and inclusiveness in an era of reformed multilateralism and transparency in global governance, while addressing emerging geostrategic challenges in the volatile Indo-Pacific and beyond. The paramount foundation of India-ASEAN strategic cooperation lies on the premises of establishing openness, inclusiveness, rules-based international system, freedom of navigation, territorial sovereignty, and peaceful settlement of outstanding maritime disputes in conformity to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).[1] Both India and ASEAN emphasize greater trade and maritime connectivity in the Indo-Pacific as a stimulating factor towards heightening strategic cooperation in bilateral as well as multilateral spheres. In that context New Delhi’s consideration of ASEAN centrality in the Indo-Pacific geopolitical architecture is strategic that is poised to have far-reaching implications.

Furthermore, the Act East Policy (AEP), India-led Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), and India-ASEAN Plan of Action (2021-2025) have been considered as central pillars towards consolidation of the ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress, Stability, and Shared Prosperity[2] in the region that also constitutes India’s extended neighbourhood in the eastern frontier. Such diplomatic endeavours, especially at a time when the two sides are commemorating the 30th Anniversary of ASEAN-India Dialogue Relations, bear special importance. Towards that India and some of the ASEAN countries joining the recently launched Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) is a significant development.[3]

India and ASEAN community hold deep historical, civilizational, cross-cultural, trade and connectivity linkages for over several millennia. Such strong bonding between the peoples has been instrumental in providing rock-solid foundation to current India-ASEAN Strategic Partnership that is based on mutual trust, respect, convergence of interests, and equality.

India-ASEAN Strategic Partnership acquired renewed vision and viable roadmap with the formal announcement of Act East Policy in 2014. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s big push towards enhancing politico-economic cooperation in India’s extended neighbourhood, Act East Policy captures essence of New Delhi’s revamped foreign policy initiatives. The policy focuses on the extended neighbourhood in the Asia-Pacific region with special reference to India’s North-Eastern Region as the gateway to access ASEAN countries. The policy which was originally envisioned as an economic initiative, has gained momentum and extensiveness over time by encompassing political, strategic, and cultural dimensions including establishment of institutional mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation between India and ASEAN community. The emphasis here is to heighten cooperation to strategic heights through continuous engagement at bilateral, regional, and multilateral levels thereby providing enhanced connectivity to the States of India’s North-Eastern Region including Arunachal Pradesh with other countries in our neighbourhood inclusive of ASEAN.

Another pivotal component of India-ASEAN growing partnership relates to the comprehensive Plan of Action (2021-2025) that aims at enhancing maritime trade and security cooperation along with counter-terrorism measures. The Action Plan also enables the two sides to work towards the vision for an economically integrated grouping that narrows the development gap and enhances connectivity.[4] The Plan of Action 2021-2025 carries forward the tenets of its precursor Plan (2016-2020) that had a purpose and intent for promoting peace, progress, and shared prosperity in the region. The POA 2016-2020 enabled ASEAN and India to work towards building and integrating the ASEAN Community in terms of Post-2015 Renewed Vision for a politically cohesive, economically integrated, socially responsible and a genuinely people-oriented, people-centred and rules-based ASEAN group that would aim at narrowing the development gap while enhancing India-ASEAN connectivity.[5]

POA 2016- 2020 also provided guidelines for ASEAN-India dynamic energy cooperation. Both sides decided to work on establishment of compatible electricity grid and strengthen cooperation through private sector participation. India also committed to help Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV) in rural electrification including access to solar energy, bio-mass, bio gas, micro hydro and off-grid electrification. Institutional linkages between ASEAN and India through ASEAN Centre for Energy to develop research and innovation are also mentioned in the POAs.[6] The POA 2016-2020 have been instrumental in deepening India-ASEAN renewable energy cooperation with special emphasis of harnessing India’s energy expertise in areas of wind and solar energy.[7] The POA 2016-2020 also enabled to embolden medical and healthcare cooperation especially 2020, as the world got hit by COVID-19 pandemic. Concurrently, POA 2016-2020 also allowed India-ASEAN partnership towards comprehensive upswing in global GDP contribution to the tune of approximately USD 3.8 trillion in conjunction with higher levels of ASEAN investment in India. [8]

All these developments arising out of POA 2016-2020 have been critical in formulating and prioritizing the tenets of the 2021-2025 Plan of Action that aims at further propelling the momentum of ASEAN-India strategic partnership. In turn, the POA 2021-2025 allows for strategizing the priorities in shaping the trajectory of India-ASEAN partnership in the ambit of larger Indo-Pacific geopolitical architecture while supporting the ASEAN community building and economic integration process. This approach further strengthens the cohesiveness of Indian and ASEAN political, social, and economic fabric towards harnessing optimally the available resources for inclusive and sustainable economic development in the Indo-Pacific with a spirit of shared progress. Such diplomatic endeavours allow for the fulfilment of the tenets of “ASEAN 2025: Forging Ahead Together”, for a “politically cohesive, economically integrated, socially responsible, and a truly people-oriented, people-centred and rules-based ASEAN”, while enhancing India-ASEAN Connectivity.[9]

The Plan of Action 2021-2025 further stimulates robust cooperation in addressing common and emerging challenges of mutual concerns especially in the aftermath of COVID-19 pandemic and rapidly evolving geopolitical rift-lines. With New Delhi all set to take over presidency of G-20, expectations are high in ASEAN community towards credible geostrategic and economic intervention in a sustainable basis not only in India-ASEAN paradigm but also in ensuring peace, stability, maritime security in the entire Indo-Pacific. The comprehensive nature of political cooperation, security cooperation, maritime cooperation, socio-cultural cohesiveness, trade and investment collaboration, energy security, and healthcare diplomacy as enshrined in the Plan of Action 2021-2025 is expected to be truly momentous in providing new momentum and direction in India-ASEAN strategic partnership.

The other hallmark of India-ASEAN cooperation relates to strengthening New Delhi driven Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative (IPOI) that was proposed at the 14th East Asia Summit in Bangkok in November 2019 by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The foundations of IPOI are firmly rooted towards propelling robust engagement between India and ASEAN nations based on convergence of strategic interests in political, economic, and socio-cultural frontiers while ensuring safety, maritime security, and stability in the crucial Indo-Pacific region. The Plan of Action (2021-2025) significantly adds to the momentum to the roadmap articulated by IPOI in bringing India and ASEAN members closer, working together as natural partners in tactical and strategic manner.

Under the aegis of IPOI both India and ASEAN countries have reiterated strong commitment to enhancing cooperation on maritime security, connectivity, and territorial integrity among partner countries in ASEAN community. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in 2018, Prime Minister Modi had articulated India’s perspective of the Indo Pacific as a geographical space extending from East Africa to the Western Pacific with ASEAN centrality wherein there is a seamless continuum between two large water domains – the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean flow.[10] The IPOI emphasizes emboldening regional cooperation architecture and mechanisms by focussing on seven central pillars: Maritime Security; Maritime Ecology; Maritime Resources; Capacity Building and Resource Sharing; Disaster Risk Reduction and Management; Science, Technology and Academic Cooperation; and Trade Connectivity and Maritime Transport.[11] Importantly, the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific further reinforces the basic tenets of Indian initiative on Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative and the India-ASEAN Plan of Action (2021-2025) by reaffirming Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions as closely integrated and interconnected spaces with an overall goal to promote peace, stability, and prosperity in the region.[12]

India-ASEAN Strategic Partnership scaled newer heights of cordiality, strength, and resilience when in an unprecedented move and as major departure from conventional practice New Delhi invited heads of state and government from all 10 ASEAN nations to attend India’s 69th Republic Day ceremony as chief guests.[13] Additionally, the upcoming 19thAnnual India-ASEAN Summit level meeting is expected to be momentous in delineating strategic vision and viable roadmap towards shaping the trajectory of strategic engagement with inclusiveness. With recent escalation of Taiwan-China tensions having concurrent geopolitical implications for South-East Asia and India’s recent showcasing of defence capabilities and preparedness by successful commissioning of indigenously built aircraft carrier INS Vikrant demonstrating New Delhi’s commitment to act as a formidable first responder in the larger Indian Ocean Region encompassing ASEAN; heightened India-ASEAN partnership is going to be paramount in establishing geostrategic stability and much needed power-balance in the Indo-Pacific.

Endnotes :


(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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