Cooperation with ASEAN gives India lessons in the virtues of a free market, offers an opportunity to civilisational friends to turn business partners and heralds an era of prosperity and peace for all stakeholders in the collaboration
The sight of the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations sharing the dais with President Ram Nath Kovind and Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the Republic Day was reassuring after India’s foreign policy moved from ‘look east’ to ‘act east’ policy. Unlike continental bodies that become untenable due to the relations between benefactor and beneficiary member countries — for example, the European Union — this is a space for a free market. While the Asian group comprises the Political-Security Community, the ASEAN Economic Community and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, it’s the second where one looks forward to numerous transactions between India and Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. It is hoped that, in the true spirit of the group, it will extend the cooperation of the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement to the Asian state of India and our government will reciprocate even faster than the relatively new member states in fulfilling the obligations of the pact of commerce. Whereas the group has yet to achieve the objective of turning the southern Asia into one market and production base encouraging a healthy competition with an equitable economic development, which would also be integrated into the global economy, it is still far ahead of India in terms of ease of doing business, especially due to a fast project sanctioning process, in which Singapore shines as a role model. Modi indeed has to demonstrate here that his glowing tribute to Lee Kuan Yew was beyond a customary condolence message delivered after the death of the first prime minister of the city-state in 2015. In fact, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s economic wing does have practically trained economists with experience of establishing and running successfully businesses in the ASEAN region, and hence one wonders why emulation of these countries in making a market-oriented, friendly bureaucracy is taking India so long.
Cultural exchanges between countries are often underrated, but here is a group, the shared civilisational past of which make Myanmar, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia comfortable in dealing with India despite the diversity in religions of the respective majority country. The interactions with countries of this region give India a relatively smooth experience when compared to the bilateral relations it has with different Islamic countries in the stretch on the globe between Pakistan and various Arab countries. Further, now that several of these ASEAN members have had enough of China’s hegemony, they also look up to India as a balancing power. To that end, if China is forming a ‘string of pearls’ around the Indian map with investments in all our neighbouring country, India can form its own string that would be as long as the ancient reach of Indian culture, and then grow further through cooperation with North American countries towards the Pacific end and African nations towards the Indian Ocean end. In a way, business is also an antidote to war, as the stakes of the countries involved become so high that traditionally hostile nations look for ways of reconciliation.
ASEAN has its fair share of challenges, though. There is an undertone of social conflict between national identities and the ethnic Chinese population spread across the region. A common currency the group dreams of along the lines of the Euro is a pipedream. Thailand. Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia find it difficult to keep pace with the vibrant economies of the other member states. However, not being a member, India need not be concerned about these issues except the first. Since social clashes have mercifully stayed subdued in the region, India may request ASEAN to broaden its area for a free movement of skilled labour, which would open new vistas of employment for Indian workers. Inviting the ASEAN leaders as the chief guests for this R-Day parade — breaking away from the convention of inviting one head of state per occasion — is among of the diplomatic innovations of Modi. It is expected that the meeting heralds a prosperous future for India and southern Asia alike.