India's role in a changing ASEAN

VIENTIANE, NOV. 29. If India's engagement with the Association of South-East Asian Nations has expanded and deepened a great deal over the past 12 years, this is quite modest in comparison with the powerful relationship China has forged with the regional grouping.

The level of two-way trade between ASEAN and its three East Asian partners, Japan, China and South Korea, can be taken as rough indicators of the level of economic partnership achieved. For ASEAN and the three taken together, two-way trade was close to $196 billion in 2004. Naturally, the Japanese economy — despite the prolonged recession — has the lion's share in this. But China's economic partnership with ASEAN is racing ahead. Two-way trade between ASEAN and China is now close to $50 billion and the target for 2005 is $100 billion.

Political diversity

If ASEAN and the partnerships and interactions it has developed with conspicuous success are all about ways and means to accelerate economic development, some political subtexts have come on the agenda in recent years. With the induction of two socialist countries, Vietnam (1995) and Laos (1997), a former socialist country still recovering from the ravages of Pol Potism, Cambodia (1999), and Myanmar (1997), political diversity has increased within the regional grouping. The two most politically significant changes ASEAN has experienced over the last few years are (a) the arrival of a problematical security agenda and set of political concerns that came with 9/11, and (b) the growing weight of China and all it stands for in the ASEAN scheme of things.

Interestingly, China was the first dialogue partner to accede to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia; this happened at the 2003 ASEAN summit at Bali where a Strategic Partnership between the world's most populous country and the regional association was announced. By contrast, Japan's political influence in this region seems to be waning.

India's advantage

As for the new ASEAN, India has the advantage of having traditionally strong relations with the Indochinese countries — civilisationally, politically, and, more recently, through development cooperation and assistance. Of the three Laos, which is India's country coordinator in ASEAN, is the smallest and the most in need of economic assistance. With a population of 5.7 million, close to half of whom live in poverty, it has set itself the target of coming out of the "Least Developed Country" category by 2020. Along with Vietnam, it has firmly supported India's candidature for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. Political feelings towards India are warm and spontaneously friendly.

Civilisational bond

India has made a good start by including a speciality neurological hospital, funding for 150 km of power transmission lines, an IT Centre, an entrepreneurship centre in its agenda of development cooperation. But, as the top Lao leaders reminded Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in their meetings with him in Vientiane, the really big assistance could come in the field of agriculture, where India, its research institutions and its business community, could contribute a great deal. India would also do well to go ahead and commit itself to the restoration of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Wat Phu in southern Laos, which goes back to the 5th century A.D. and is a marvellous reminder of the civilisational bond between India and Southeast Asia.

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