News: ASEAN, a persistence with dialogue, on a trodden path

What's in the news?

If Southeast Asia is the heart of the Indo-Pacific, the 56th Foreign Ministers Meeting (FMM) of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the post-ministerial conferences and other related regional meetings, held in Jakarta, Indonesia in mid-July, 2023, are the best barometer to check on the region's latest dynamics. 

Key takeaways:

An elaborate institutional architecture created by ASEAN has become an inclusive platform that draws nations from near and far, as also all major players (the United States, China, India, Japan and Russia) engaged in shaping the strategic contestation in a vast region stretching from east Africa to the South Pacific.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN):

It is a political and economic organization aimed primarily at promoting economic growth and regional stability among its members.

It was founded in 1967 by the five South-East Asian nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

Brunei Darussalam joined in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, Lao PDR and Myanmar in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999, making up ten Member States of ASEAN.

Current members:

Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

ASEAN Plus Three:

It is a forum that functions as a coordinator of co-operation between the ASEAN and the three East Asian nations of China, South Korea, and Japan.

ASEAN Plus Six:

The group includes ASEAN Plus Three as well as India, Australia, and New Zealand. 

ASEAN Summit:

It is the highest policy-making body in ASEAN comprising the Head of States or Government of ASEAN Member States.

Summit is held twice annually.

The First ASEAN Summit was held in Bali, Indonesia in 1976.

About East Asia Summit:

Established in 2005, it is a forum of 18 regional leaders for strategic dialogue and cooperation on the key political, security, and economic challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region.

The concept of an East Asia Grouping was first promoted in 1991 by the then Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad.

There are six priority areas of regional cooperation within the framework of the EAS such as 

a. Environment and Energy

b. Education

c. Finance

d. Global Health Issues and Pandemic Diseases

e. Natural Disaster Management

f. ASEAN Connectivity.


It comprises the ten member states of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) which are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, along with 8 other countries namely Australia, China, Japan, India, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Russia and the USA.

It is an ASEAN-centered forum so it can only be chaired by an ASEAN member.

India - ASEAN Background:

After its Independence in 1947, India followed a policy of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and became a champion of decolonisation, including in Southeast Asia.

However, during the 1970s, India’s perceived tilt towards the Soviet Union caused Southeast Asia to drift away from India as both followed different economic and political ideologies.

In a major shift away from policies of the Cold War era, India adopted the “Look East Policy” (LEP) soon after economic liberalization in 1991 to increase economic and commercial ties with East and Southeast Asian nations.

India became a Sectoral Partner of ASEAN in 1992, a Dialogue Partner in 1996 and a Summit-level Partner in 2002.

The partnership was upgraded to Strategic Partnership in 2012 as a result of the growth of India-ASEAN relationship in the last two decades.

India announced Act East Policy in 2014 with an intent to upscale its engagement with ASEAN Member States.

India and ASEAN celebrated 25 years of their Dialogue Partnership, 15 years of Summit Level interaction and 5 years of Strategic Partnership in 2017.

The Act-East Policy emphasizes the 3 C’s of Connectivity, Commerce and Culture as the focus areas of action for a greater ASEAN-India integration.

India - ASEAN relations:

1. Economic relations:

ASEAN is India's fourth largest trading partner.

India's trade with ASEAN stands at approx. 10.6% of India's overall trade.

India's export to ASEAN stands at 11.28% of our total exports. The ASEAN-India Free Trade Area has been completed.

ASEAN India-Business Council (AIBC) was set up in 2003 to bring key private sector players from India and the ASEAN countries on a single platform.

Total value of two way trade is around $100 billion.

2. Political relations:

ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is the main forum for security dialogue and India has been attending these annual meetings since 1996.

ASEAN-India Centre (AIC) was established to undertake policy research, advocacy and networking activities with organizations and think-tanks in India and ASEAN.

Delhi Dialogue - Annual Track 1.5 event for discussing politico-security and economic issues between ASEAN and India.

3. Financial assistance:

India provides financial assistance to the ASEAN nations through various mechanisms like ASEAN-India Cooperation Fund, ASEAN-India S&T Development Fund and ASEAN-India Green Fund.

4. Connectivity:

India has been undertaking several connectivity projects like India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral (IMT) Highway and the Kaladan Multimodal Project.

India is also trying to establish a Maritime Transportation Agreement with ASEAN and also Plans for a Railway link between New Delhi in India to Hanoi in Vietnam.

The PM announced a Line of Credit of US $1 billion to promote projects that support physical and digital connectivity between India and ASEAN.

Mekong - India economic corridor aims to connect and integrate the four Mekong countries – Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia - along with India, connecting Ho Chi Minh City, Dawei, Bangkok, and Phnom Penh with Chennai.

5. Security relations:

India places ASEAN at the Centre of its Indo-Pacific vision of Security and Growth for All in the Region.

The ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) is the highest defence consultative and cooperative mechanism in ASEAN.

The ADMM+ brings together Defence Ministers from the 10 ASEAN nations plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Russia, and the United States on a biannual basis.

India has already agreed to the export of BRAHMOS missiles to the Philippines.

Joint Naval and Military exercises are conducted between India and most ASEAN countries.

Vietnam has traditionally been a close friend on defence issues, Singapore is also an equally important partner.

6. People-to-people relations:

Various programmes have been organized to enhance people-to-people contacts.

India, for instance, has invited the ASEAN students each year for Students Exchange Programme, Special Training Courses for ASEAN Diplomats, Exchange of Parliamentarians, Participation of ASEAN students in the National Children’s Science Congress, ASEAN-India Network of think tanks, ASEAN-India Eminent Persons Lectures etc.

The 3rd edition of the ASEAN-India Workshop on Blue Economy was jointly hosted by India and Thailand in Bangkok this year.

7. Cultural relations:

India’s cultural relation with Southeast Asia is centuries old and serves as a living link between the two regions. Civilizational and cultural links date back thousands of years, since the prehistoric times. There has been increased cultural cooperation through following ways-

Buddhism, Yoga, Revival of Nalanda University, Chairs of Indian studies in universities (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia), Indian Cultural Centres (Jakarta, Bali, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Suva, Lautoka), 

Joint restoration of monuments (Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos).

Significance of ASEAN to India:

1. ASEAN’s centrality in India’s foreign policy: 

A cohesive, responsive, and prosperous ASEAN is central to India’s Indo-Pacific Vision and India’s Act East Policy and contributes to Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR).

2. Economic: 

ASEAN is one of the largest markets in the world comparative to the EU and North American markets.

It’s also the 4th most popular investment destination globally.

Investment opportunities for Indian businesses - Cost of production is lower in Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar, which means that Indian firms can gain significantly by investing in these countries.

3. Countering China: 

Cooperation between India and ASEAN is crucial to counter China’s power projection in the region. 

Both have territorial and border issues with China, disputes over the South China Islands and waters for ASEAN and over land boundaries for India.

4. Integration with regional and global supply chains: 

Increasing engagement with ASEAN is pivotal to facilitate India’s integration with regional and global supply chain movements.

5. North-East development: 

Connectivity projects with the ASEAN nations keeping Northeast India at the centre can ensure the economic growth of the land-locked north-eastern states.

6. Edible oil dependence: 

India has been importing approximately half of the country's total requirement of edible oils. 

Most of the edible oil imported by India is refined palm oil or palmolein and much of the imported oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. 

India is the world’s largest importer of palm oil from its largest producers, Indonesia and Malaysia.

7. Counter-terrorism:

Collaboration with the ASEAN nations is necessary to counter insurgency in the Northeast, combat terrorism, etc.

8. Maritime security: 

The Indian Ocean carries 90% of India’s trade and its energy sources. Presence of choke points such as the Malacca strait makes the South-East Asian region significant for countering traditional and non-traditional maritime threats like piracy and terrorism.

9. Indian Diaspora: 

About 9-8% of the population in Malaysia and Singapore is of Indian origin, in Myanmar-4% and Indonesia about 0.5%.

Challenges in India - ASEAN relations:

1. Drug trafficking menace: 

Cross country organized crime like drug trafficking between Myanmar, Thailand and Laos forming the Golden Triangle could not be contained by ASEAN.

2. China factor: 

India’s effort in this regard is meager when compared to China’s dominance in the region

China’s assertive military, political and economic rise, as well as the South China Sea disputes have divided ASEAN without unanimity amongst them.

3. RCEP relations:  

India walking out of RCEP can become a sticking point between India and ASEAN, since India’s domestic market was considered a key element in the RCEP negotiations.

India has not signed RCEP for various reasons like non-transparency in RCEP, RCEP’s non-accounting of India’s service sector relaxations, etc. 

By not signing the RCEP India also lost access to new market opportunities created in East Asia.

4. Delayed projects:  

Though India has committed to many connectivity projects, they have not been completed at the rate on par with China

China, on the other hand, through its BRI, is able to gain the trust of these countries.

5. Economic challenges:  

India has an unfavourable balance of trade with the ASEAN nations.


ASEAN-led mechanisms should be regarded as a viable regional architecture platform for the Indo-Pacific region. 

India is one of the founding members of the East Asia Summit.

ASEAN continues to maintain its central role in the evolving regional architecture in Southeast Asia and its surrounding regions.

India should increase its bilateral and multilateral engagements with ASEAN.

ASEAN countries need to work to restore the ‘ASEAN centrality and unity’ through the strategic environment of competing interests.

India should push for the reconciliation between Myanmar and the ASEAN.

The focus must be on emerging challenges to international peace and security.