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India, ASEAN Summit: Enhancing Ties (16 November 2020)

India, ASEAN Summit: Enhancing Ties (16 November 2020)

Why in News:

India participated in the 17th ASEAN-India Virtual Summit on the invitation of Vietnam, the current Chair of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).


Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday said enhancing all kinds of connectivity, including in social, digital and financial spheres, with the 10-nation ASEAN grouping is a major priority for India. He made the remarks at a virtual summit between India and the ASEAN. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is considered one of the most influential groupings in the region, and India and several other countries including the US, China, Japan and Australia are its dialogue partners. The summit took place amid China’s aggressive behaviour in the disputed South China Sea as well as in eastern Ladakh.


A number of ASEAN countries have territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. The ties between India and ASEAN have been on an upswing in the last few years with focus being on ramping up cooperation in the areas of trade and investment as well as security and defence.

The ASEAN region along with India together comprises a combined population of 1.85 billion people, which is one fourth of the global population and their combined GDP has been estimated at over USD 3.8 trillion.

Summary of the Debate

Key takeaways from the 17th ASEAN Summit:

  • Summit focussed to create strategies and measures to recover the economic losses due to COVID-19 pandemic.
  • India highlighted India’s “Indo-Pacific policy” as an area of convergence for ASEAN and India.
  • The leaders at the summit affirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, stability, safety and security in the South China Sea in particular freedom of navigation.
  • Indian Prime Minister said that “Speeding up all types of connectivity initiatives between India and ASEAN - physical, economic, social, digital, financial, maritime is the top priority for us.
  • Prime Minister Modi underscored the centrality of ASEAN in Act East Policy of India.
  • Indian Prime Minister stated that a cohesive, responsive and prosperous ASEAN is central to India's Indo-Pacific Vision and contributes to Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR).
  • He underlined the importance of strengthening convergence between India's Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) and the ASEAN Outlook on Indo-Pacific, to ensure a free, open, inclusive and rules-based Indo-Pacific region.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations

  • It is a regional grouping that promotes economic, political, and security cooperation.
  • It was established on 8th August 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration (Bangkok Declaration) by the founding fathers of ASEAN, namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
  • The 10 Members are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
  • The Chairmanship of the ASEAN rotates annually based on the alphabetical order of the English names of Member States.
  • ASEAN member nations have a total population of 650 million people and a combined GDP of USD 2.8 trillion.
  • India is the 4th largest trading partner in ASEAN with about USD 86.9 billion trade.

Major announcement by India:

  • To explore ways to increase trade despite its exit from the 15-nation RCEP agreement in 2019.
  • India announced $ 1 million to the COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund.
  • $ 1 billion Line of Credit to support ASEAN connectivity.
  • ASEAN-India Plan of Action for 2021-2025.
  • Early review of ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA), which is pending for a long time.


  • For ASEAN countries present Indo-Pacific geopolitical situation bothers them.
  • Their primary external security ally, the USA is increasingly not paying that much attention to Southeast Asia or is focussed only on one or two countries notably Indonesia and Vietnam.
  • ASEAN are internally paralyzed because at least two of them, Laos and Cambodia are now so close to China.
  • ASEAN still not have a common official position in response to Chinese territorial aggression in South China Sea.
  • India, Japan and other countries like South Korea starting to build up their own bilateral relationships which tend to no longer focus on ASEAN.

Challenges for India:

  • Trump administration has withdrawn from the region, thereby providing a larger space for the Chinese in this region.
  • Chinese are far faster than India in doing all kinds of infrastructure projects like railways, highways, bridges and multi-modal transport networks under BRI but also in other bilateral formats.
  • China is promoting insurgency in Myanmar because it wants an entry in Bay of Bengal.
  • India seen to be protectionist and not part of the broader regional integration that is happening especially RCEP.
  • PM mentioned at the summit that speeding up connectivity is India’s top priority and unfortunately India’s record in promising and delivering connectivity projects has not been great. For instance, India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway project has been delayed for more than a decade.
  • There are lots of uncertainties in the world and India is on the cusp of that. ASEAN is also trying to grapple with the same uncertainties including a post covid revival of the economy.
  • RCEP will strengthen China’s position within that geography and domain because it will reinforce the value chains that already exist within these countries and China.

Recent development in the region:

  • After the last Quad meeting, ASEAN centrality be restated in the statements that came out from the four countries that reflects an agreement that at least Vietnam and may be Singapore and Indonesia can be brought into the larger geopolitical balance effectively against China.
  • Americans at least under the Trump administration have been setting up meetings in which ASEAN plus South Korea sometimes with Vietnam in their meeting. So, they are looking at some point in future for Quad plus arrangement.
  • Japan has been trying to put up an alternative and India and Japan have couple of initiatives like Asia-Africa growth corridor which traverses the ASEAN region.
  • Recently, India-Japan-Australia announced the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) to diversify the supply risk instead of being dependent on just one country which is China.
  • When Indian PM was launching the ASEAN-India summit, on the same day, they had the Japan-ASEAN Summit and in that summit, the Japanese are promising a lot more investment especially for epidemic control and for public health in ASEAN.
  • Japanese have already become more proactive in supplying weaponry to Vietnam and India has given for the first time a submarine to Myanmar.

Way Forward:

  • ASEAN cannot retain its centrality if it becomes a part of the Chinese orbit. It has to maintain its centrality by remaining outside the Chinese orbit.
  • India should continue to aspire for ASEAN’s unity and centrality which India keep on reinstating.
  • India has to keep engaged with ASEAN and need to start delivering some of the pending projects.
  • India with ASEAN countries can put together coherent alternatives for connectivity and supply chain and for economic well being.
  • India is realising that as it grow its neighbour is not only Southeast Asia but beyond the Southeast Asia. Therefore, the ambit of India’s neighbourhood is expanding and accordingly, India has to spend more resources and to give more diplomatic energy.
  • India needs to put its private companies and private sector to invest more in this region.
  • ASEAN countries often say that they don’t want hard balancing against China; they don’t want to become part of a military coalition or an alliance. So, India can cooperate with ASEAN in sectors like infrastructure economy, technology, 5G, etc.

Important points made by the Guests

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, Former Ambassador   

  • This has been a reiteration of our general policy and the act East became a robust version of the look East.
  • PM were putting on record that India want to increase its cooperation but there have been some setbacks because India walked out of the RCEP which is going to be signed at the summit or at least initialled at the summit.
  • So, India will be left out of that and clearly it was a backdoor entry for China but this backdoor entries are emerging in many places, for example, in Bangladesh which has duty free access into the India market, China is coming up with its Export Processing Zones and SEZ. So, India has to be careful about all this.

Dr. Sreeram Chaulia, Foreign Affairs Expert 

  • China is at an advantage when there is no broad based regional cooperation, if there is a broad based regional formation like 10 countries ASEAN then that is to China’s disadvantage.
  • ASEAN have their own internal mechanisms and dialogue processes for unification of the bloc.
  • Japanese have the partnership for quality infrastructure and PM Modi proposed the coalition for disasters resilient infrastructure.
  • There is India-ASEAN FTA and almost $ 90 billion of bilateral trade is going on and India has a relatively small deficit of about 25 to $ 28 bn in that.

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, Foreign Affairs Editor, Hindustan Times

  • The rise of Quad which is noticeable for not having any ASEAN member at all, but it literally goes around the ASEAN.
  • Biden has made it very clear that he believes that the one of the biggest failures of the Trump’s foreign policy was his devaluing of America’s alliances and partnerships, this included not just five military alliances that America has with Asian countries in Asia but also with NATO and so on.
  • So, Biden has made it very clear that the heart of his foreign policy is going to be to leverage these relationships to constrain China.


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